It never fails: When I write a story that mentions a product, anyone who has an opinion about that product writes to either laud me for mentioning it (sometimes asking why I so unjustly overlooked the product in the past) or excoriate me for ignoring other, better, options. This month, Windows 2000 Magazine carried my story about a Motorola manufacturing division whose thin-client solution used Network Computing Devices’ (NCD’s) ThinPath products instead of Citrix MetaFrame. I know that MetaFrame’s a good product, and in the previous month's issue of the magazine, I wrote a case study about an application service provider's (ASP's) use of the software. With the Motorola case study, I was attempting to give time to other available options (not everyone knows that alternatives to MetaFrame even exist). But you’d think that in doing so, I'd set fire to the first-born children of some readers—none of them, incidentally, employees of Citrix. (Sigh. I hate religious wars.)
Well, I won’t be writing case studies about NCD’s ThinPath as an alternative any time soon, because NCD has quit the playing field. Rather than positioning its ThinPath suite as a MetaFrame alternative, NCD plans to offer its ThinPath suite as management tools—making NCD less like Citrix and more like Wyse, or Neoware, or the other Windows-based terminal (WBT) vendors that have realized that good management tools are key to capturing the hardware market.
NCD has had a checkered relationship with Citrix. In the beginning, the two companies were close—NCD’s WinCenter product is based on Citrix’s Multi-Win technology. However, NCD started competing directly with Citrix when it released its ThinPath suite of management tools (which provide server and client management, load balancing, and some RDP support that extended native Windows RDP’s capabilities when used with PCs or with NCD’s ThinStar terminals), and relations grew bitter. NCD wasn’t even on the floor at Citrix iForum last year, but in a separate meeting room, away from the rest of the vendors.
Now NCD’s back in the Citrix Business Alliance (CBA), and the press release announcing the company's return makes no mention of its ThinPath products. In truth, the ThinPath suite has always been hardware-specific when it comes to terminal management. But the tools also have worked with PC clients, which has differentiated them from other terminal management tools. (Although the ThinPath line is still available through channels, I’m told that NCD won’t be doing any further work on its load-balancing product. And if you’ve tried to download the once-free ThinPath Plus! from the NCD Web site recently, you’ve noticed that it’s not there—it's now available only through channels.)
So what happened? According to David Perry, NCD’s director of worldwide marketing, Citrix has such a complete solution built around ICA that RDP-based solutions can’t compete. He has a point. When MetaFrame meant simply local printer and sound support (and support for load-balancing tools, if you bought the add-on), NCD’s ThinPath suite could compete. But MetaFrame means a lot more now. Even the new Windows Web-based RDP client is a response to what Citrix was doing a couple of years ago with Active Launching and Embedding. For those who don’t need all of MetaFrame’s functionality to support their terminal services, Windows 2000's improvements to RDP probably suffice. RDP's support for local printers removed much of the need for ThinPath Plus! And Win2K Advanced Server has some support for load balancing. Tougher competition isn’t the whole story, though. NCD has offered some good solutions, especially for smaller companies that want to implement terminal services but need a little more than Windows alone offers. But NCD often failed to publicize those solutions.
Did the best company win? Probably. Citrix has done a lot with MetaFrame and will do even more with the next release. Its product works for platforms other than Windows, on both the server end and the client end. (As I mention in the case study I alluded to in the beginning of this column, other divisions of Motorola use MetaFrame for Unix.) The next version of MetaFrame includes support for greater color depth, so that applications running in a terminal window won’t be limited to 256 colors. Citrix has improved security and tuned the display protocol to make it faster. (To hear about other improvements, come to iForum next week.) ThinPath was good, but the products didn’t offer capabilities on this scale.
If you don’t need MetaFrame, then Win2K Terminal Services is probably enough for you. Nevertheless, I’m sorry that NCD couldn’t compete with Citrix. I like alternatives to the obvious.