ReTales: Thin Client Drama

retail shoppingThe beginning of the holiday season always makes me think about my time working in the retail side of the business. That’s understandable since I spent so much time there and, like it or not, retail and the holiday season are inextricably linked.

I spent a couple of years working for a major department store. Despite such a brief tenure, that experience equipped me with an arsenal of stories about weird retail experiences (which is not to say that I didn’t accumulate plenty of those both before and after).

While I’m not sure what triggered this memory, for some reason I remembered when the department store rolled out early IBM thin clients to store management. It turned into a total Gong Show.

Let me just start out by saying there is nothing inherently wrong with thin client architecture. In fact, it makes lots of sense (you can read all about it on the Wikipedia entry here). So what went wrong?

What you have to remember is this particular thin client deployment happened a long time ago. It was the early days of the internet. Back when internet speeds were measured in dozens of bytes. The end result was that when you were using one of the thin clients, the lag between what you were typing on the keyboard and what you saw on the monitor was comically long; five or six seconds or even longer. It was intolerable. Imagine trying to work on a spreadsheet, or anything really, with lag like that.

Of course, we all complained bitterly about it. And, unsurprisingly, nothing was done to fix it. Although to be fair, the company’s long-suffering IT department couldn’t have fixed it with the technology of the times. It’s worth noting that the company’s IT people were also tasked with maintaining legacy enterprise systems for point of sale and inventory control that, in some cases, dated back to the 1970s. I can well imagine they had their own daily Gong Shows to deal with and didn’t want to hear us whine about our fancy new computers.