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It’s an idea whose idea has come. Again.

Back in the dotcom day, IBM and several other major players hawked the “thin client.” Their theory was that you could do all your daily work on a Web server, via a customized browser running on your specialized network appliance or PC.

This potential breakthrough in cost and ease of management broke down in two big ways. Users didn’t think the Web versions of their familiar desktop applications were powerful enough, and they gave up altogether when connections to the server were broken or simply too slow.

But other Web-based applications continued to flourish. IBM kept puttering away on server-driven applications for general office tasks. And last week Big Blue raised its game with the introduction of its ambitious Workplace 2.0: a “middleware” application infrastructure designed to let organizations deliver and manage programs that run on PCs, handhelds, and smart phones but that are entirely controlled by servers.

The biggest twist in Workplace 2.0 is its new Workplace Client Technology, which IBM says overcomes the barriers of functionality and imperfect connections that are faced by server-driven clients. IBM describes this as a “rich” rather than a thin client.

As with other existing Web clients, Workplace Client programs can be delivered, managed, and updated directly from the server, thus slashing IT management costs. For instance, an entire organization can be upgraded to the next release of a word processor without having to monkey with any desktop machines. Workplace also boosts security, running only applications that have been authorized by the customer organization.

But IBM says Workplace Client will provide full-featured interfaces and powerful tools like those of standard PC applications, rather than the simple browser-based interfaces and constrained capabilities of thin clients. Each organization can download just the components a given user needs, rather than take the one-size-fits-all approach exemplified by Microsoft Office. (Does everyone really need, say, Excel 2003’s continuous probability distribution functions?)

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