Home » Technology » Virtualization » Interviewer: The story behind the first thin client is quite the adventure, why don’t you start at the beginning?
Jeff McNaught: I first arrived at Wyse many years ago and immediately questioned what I was doing. Here I was, a ‘PC guy’, entering a terminal company. Why? Terminals are so boring! But Wyse actually had a PC business on the side, so that’s where I ended up.
I started as a project manager and eventually worked my way up to director, then running marketing for Wyse’s PC business. Wyse had other ideas, however: it decided to leave the PC sector, and everyone who had been working for me were let go, and out of the two divisions (PC and terminal) left, only four people were left at corporate level.
I thought we were about to be handed our pink slip, that we were next to go. Instead, we were led into the office and informed that we were the new strategic development group, tasked with charting the future of the company. Holy cow! That was our reaction. I mean, the stakes were high – I remember saying to the group that we could be working somewhere else in three weeks’ time. I can’t remember if we laughed or not.
I: And that strategic development group bore the very first thin client?
JM: Well, yes and no. The four of us were split into two groups at the beginning. I was partnered with Wyse’s head of Engineering, Curt Schwebke, and the thin client was born out of our idea after putting our heads down and thinking about what problems that needed solving, that hadn’t been solved yet. We ultimately decided that we needed to make the terminal “cool” again, moving beyond the green screen and to something that added value to the application platform leading in business.
At the time, Windows was taking over the sector, but the terminal model was much easier to use and the challenge for us became “how do you make a terminal work for Windows?” A Windows PC worked by doing your work right there, using completely separate applications from everyone else. So, in short, we had to find a company who could move Windows to a server (or a private cloud, in today’s terms), and we eventually found Citrix.
Obviously, the process and iterations were more complicated than that, but for brevity’s sake let’s leave it there. Now, after we found Citrix, we had to convince ourselves that this was the right decision: there we were, then a company worth around $500 million, sitting opposite a young group of Floridians and we were gearing up to tie our future with them. It was tense! But we decided it was worth the risk and began to work with them to create a prototype winterm, or, a Windows terminal.
I: It was clearly worth the risk. So, how did it get from prototype to industry-changing tech? (And what did the other pair come up?)
JM: Ha! I think they came up with a telemetric information program for tow trucks that go out and fix your cars when they break down. Their idea wasn’t accepted by leadership. But none of us realised how much pressure there was on us, we truly got lucky. After a year of prototyping with Citrix, we rode out to all the tradeshows at the time, and in 1995 we had our first user test case at the, now defunct, Comdex show.
We just wanted to test whether our idea had legs – would it even be popular? That was our mission goal. At Comdex, we showed guests the prototype. It was a 15-inch screen with a keyboard – the first ones had them built in – and we let them play with it.
“So what, it’s a PC?”
“No, no, it’s actually a terminal,” we’d say.
“What do you mean it’s not a PC? It acts like one, and here are all the Windows applications I’m accessing and seeing…”
“Ah, but this terminal is connected to that server over there, and that’s where the applications and information is stored.”
That was the most common conversation we had.
And actually, surprisingly maybe, the real sell of the product which we weren’t expecting back then, was not the efficiency aspect of the thin client, or the collaboration between employees it promised, it was the cost! Back then, PCs cost around $2200, and a terminal, around $500. They did the math, and then they got excited.
I: What strategy did you employ throughout this journey?
JM: Strategy?! We were told to chart the future course of a company, and we just launched ourselves into the first project we came up. There was no sophisticated strategy initially. Handing us the reigns was definitely a risky thing to do.
I: If you were in the same position would you have done it today?
JM: Well, we know more now. We didn’t know enough back then to be nervous, but the leadership must have seen something in us…
I: Anyway, we digress, carry on with the story!
JM: Of course! So, we introduced The Wyse Winterm at Comdex and it got a great reception, as we’ve just discussed. Bill Gates even came to look at it. The next day, however, the president of Wyse (my boss at the time) gets a call from Microsoft asking us what we’re doing with a device that makes Windows work like a terminal. Uh-oh.
It was a VP at Microsoft, and he wanted to meet us in person. You don’t really refuse that sort of offer. So we left Comdex in Las Vegas and caught a plane north to Seattle. (Of course, back then, it was far easier to jump on a plane with a 40-pound prototype product and just chuck it in the overhead.)
And that VP asked us a ton of questions! What is it? What does it do? What did we think it solved? How competitive is it? Are we trying to kill the PC? And this went on, and on.
I said, “No, we just think there is another way of accessing data that takes advantage of centrally located software storage, making it available to whomever was connected to it via a cable.”
This was a three-hour conversation, mind you. And I was very excitable, throwing my hands in the air and jumping in my seat at any given opportunity. It was a very one-sided conversation! And at the end of it, he looked at us for a short amount of time and said something along the lines of, “I know where you’re going with this, and I can’t officially support it because of our strategy to put a PC on every desktop, but we [Bill Gates and himself] want to see how this plays out.”
To paraphrase, he allowed us to live.
I: Wow, so you survived your first big-boy meeting. How did you feel? Did that give you the encouragement to push forward?
JM: We were pretty upbeat, let me tell you. There’s a punchline though: that VP was Paul Maritz, who went on to lead VMware, which went onto facilitating the industry as well!
Anyway, after the meeting we flew back to Las Vegas for the rest of Comdex, and the Winterm ended up winning Best of Show. (we have a photo holding the award sign) The run up to that moment was a collection of serendipitous moments and meetings – you might say Silicon Valley is mostly run on chance and luck.
I: And throughout that lucky journey, what were the major lessons you learned that you’ve kept to this day?
JM: We were too stupid to learn when we should stop, we kept iterating the product to make it better, completely adopting the term ‘fail, forward, fast’, which we were taught in Silicon Valley.
We didn’t know what we didn’t know, true ignorance is bliss, call it what you will. Although after that journey, we did start to think more about long-term development and we thought notoriety was an interesting position to take. So we took the ‘no entry’ symbol, sticking a PC in it, and that became our symbol, our rallying cry. There were some nasty side effects though: when the PC industry started to taper off, people blamed us because of our symbol, but there was no correlation.
It paid off anyway, because Dell bought us out soon after.
I: What a journey for you, and for Wyse! What was the reaction from the team back in the office?
JM: OK, so this is quite funny. Back at the start, we were a division of Wyse with only a handful of employees, and everyone else thought we were the weird people – they couldn’t see the future element to the Winterm and Citrix Winframe) idea. But after Comdex, and getting to market and iterating each product, suddenly we were the most popular department and everyone wanted to be a part of the team. Once our success was confirmed, many were caught saying it was their idea, or they had a hand in the idea, or even they let us live because they knew it would be huge.
One thing I’ve learned is that failure is an orphan, success has a thousand parents. It was fascinating. The whole journey was, looking back at it now, fascinating. But it was also lucky, and tough, unpredictable, exciting and so, so fun.