Thick client? Thin client? Or in-between?

In a recent post, Patrick Myles looked at the very different approach that is needed when designing thin-client trading apps compared to traditional thick-client solutions.

It got me thinking about the choice between thin and thick, and when each is appropriate, as well as the possible benefits of a new approach that offers something in between.

The benefit of a thick client (ie, an application downloaded in advance and installed on a user’s computer) is that, if well-designed, it is more performant and capable of more complex functionality. Thick clients used also to be  considered more secure, but nowadays this is questionable and in fact the reverse is often true — web apps in modern browsers are more secure than installed apps, because of the browsers’ well-designed ‘sandboxes’.

The benefits of a thin client app (ie, an app that is loaded into a browser like a web page) are that it can be run on almost any device almost anywhere, it doesn’t need to be installed (which often requires special permission in large firms, and can pose a security threat) and it can be upgraded instantly as often as desired. In addition, the cost of maintaining a thin client app is much lower since it doesn’t interact in complex ways with a user’s PC.

So in simple terms, thick clients are for power users working on desktop PCs where the cost and ease of installation and support are less important than ultimate performance. Thin clients are for the rest of us.

As you would expect, the balance is progressively tipping ever further in the direction of thin clients. Browser-based apps are becoming more powerful and functional all the time, and the rationale for installed apps is gradually dwindling. The increasingly adoption of HTML5 as a universal GUI technology accelerates this trend. But of course, there remain high-end applications where heavyweight installed applications still make the most sense.

Interestingly, there is now a new ‘in-between’ option. A number of banks have explored the idea of using a ‘wrapper’ based on technologies such as Chromium so that they get all the re-usability and future-proof benefits of HTML5 but delivered as an installed application — essentially, an unobtrusive browser that only connects to the provider. This allows the app to do things that are tricky in a normal browser (such as spanning multiple windows, removing window chrome, background alerting) and also allows users who don’t have the latest browsers to run the HTML5 apps as if they did. It’s a bit like what PhoneGap does for mobile.

Now a New York-based startup, OpenFin, has started offering this kind of container application as a product. They are also supporting an ‘app store’ model that allows firms to provide multiple apps to run within a single installed container.

It will be interesting to see how much traction this in-between model gets — short-term, and long-term.


2 Responses

  1. […] The joint solution addresses these issues by enabling HTML5 applications to run outside-the-browser with the same user experience and capabilities as native, installed applications, as was discussed here in a post looking at Thick client? Thin client? Or in-between? […]

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