Sometimes You Can Be Too Thin

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Todays computer user interface technology offers a wealth ofoptions for accessing and working with information.

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As Internet and Web technologies proliferated, many softwarevendors rushed to develop “thin client” applications, using thesame tools for developing Web pages.

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Lets define some terms. A client is a computer or workstationthat is typically connected to a network. Generally, a thin-clientworkstation doesnt contain application software, but can access thesoftware from a server or from the Internet in order to make use ofit. Thus, thin clients are often referred to as browser-based, Webclients or lean clients.

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After the early rush of software companies to attempt to moveevery process to thin client architecture, with plenty ofmisses along the way, some independent software vendors now haveadopted a balanced approach with thin and rich client computing.You have to use technologies where they make the most sense. Thinclients may seem “cooler,” but “cool” doesnt drive revenue orprofit for your businesshighly usable and functional softwaredoes.

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In contrast to Windows-based (or rich) clients, thin clients arenot installed on a local workstation but instead run from a Webserver. This method of deployment allows for nearly ubiquitousaccess of the application. Any machine with the right version ofthe Web browser and an Internet connection can become an employeesworkstation.

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Thin client configurations also have a lower administrationcost. Since the software is not actually installed on the localworkstations, all of the maintenance is performed on the Web orapplication servers.

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Despite the hype around thin client configurations, it isntalways good to be thin.

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Rich clients afford end users powerful and flexible userinterfaces. Rich clients take full advantage of the services of theoperating system. They can leverage the printing capabilities ofWindows and fully access system services such as security andstorage, while they may also offer enhanced performance.

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Rich clients have a much larger universe of functionality. In aWeb services transaction, they connect to a computer across theInternet and provide users with very powerful interfaces andcomplete pictures of their information. Complex business processingtasks such as data manipulation and analysis are the sole provinceof rich clients.

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Thin clients, on the other hand, are well suited to certainkinds of tasks and represent a new level of automation for agenciesand carriers. Thin clients, because they use the familiarnavigation concepts (like the next and back buttons and hot links),require little training for new users. This makes them a powerfulway to push information and tools to consumers. For example, thinkof online banking. The ability of consumers to move money betweenaccounts, schedule payments and review checks online hasrevolutionized customer service by banks.

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This same kind of customer service is possible in our industry.We can provide insureds with the ability to answer many of theirown policy questions and handle basic tasks such as printing autoID cards or requesting a change of coverage. Using a Web servicestranslator, todays technology can access carrier systems andprovide information on a customers direct bill balance or claim. Itcan be used by a business to generate certificates of insurance,which can be printed, faxed or e-mailed. As a thin clientapplication, such technology is easy to instantly deploy to all ofan agencys customers.

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Thin client applications will continue to grow as businesses andindependent software vendors discover new ways to harness the Webto meet users needs. Over time, as bandwidth becomes cheaper andmore abundant and as the development tools evolve, we will see amelding of rich clients and thin clients.

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Its important to note that this will be an evolutionthin clienttools are not ready today to supplant rich clients. We can see thebeginnings of these changes in todays Windows applications, many ofwhich demonstrate a borrowing of user interface metaphors betweenthin and rich clients.

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This joining of thin and rich client technologies will extendbeyond the user interface to the underlying architecture with agoal of delivering robust, fully functional clients that are easierto deploy and maintain.

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Soon, a hybrid client will emerge that blends the best featuresof thin and rich clients. To accomplish this platform, independentsoftware vendors will need to develop new tools and add-ons to theoperating systems and Web browsers to support the hybridclient.

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John Higginson ([email protected])is executive vice president, technology, of University Park,Ill.-based Applied Systems Inc., an insurance industry technologyprovider.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Property &Casualty/Risk & Benefits Management Edition, August 18, 2003.Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serialpublication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as anindependent work may be held by the author.


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