In the 1960s and '70s, system administrators ruled the world of business computing; you couldn't so much as add two numbers together without applying for special permission to expend valuable computer time doing so. In the early 1980s, the personal computer changed all that. If you wanted to add up numbers, you just bought a PC and a spreadsheet and did it yourself.
Around 1985, several large computer companies introduced what they called the 'diskless workstation' which was basically a desktop computer with all of the disk drives removed; it ran all its programs, and stored all your files, on a big computer somewhere else on the network. Needless to say, this big computer was completely controlled by the system administrators.
Rise, Fall and Variations
Diskless workstations were loudly proclaimed to be the future of computing. Magazines breathlessly explained how you could save a few hundred dollars by buying computers with no disk drives and all you needed to do was spend a few hundred thousand dollars on a very fast network and a huge central computer. True, the diskless workstation was slower than a desktop computer. True, if the network went down it meant nobody in the building could do any work. Thanks to all this, the diskless workstation died a sudden death around 1990.
Around 1995, a number of big computer companies came up with an idea they called the Network Computer (NC). A Network Computer was exactly like a diskless workstation, except that it ran Java instead of UNIX, making it even slower. Nevertheless, NCs were loudly proclaimed to be the future of computing. Millions of dollars were spent developing special Java versions of applications to run across the network. Around 1998 it became clear that nobody was buying any of it, and Network Computers joined diskless workstations in the graveyard of computing history.
Then in 1999, magazines began making a lot of noise about ASPs, or Application Service Providers. The idea was simple: instead of running an application sitting on your PC hard drive, you'd connect to the Internet and run it from a big central computer, and store your files on the Internet too. In other words, it was exactly like a diskless workstation or Network Computer except you'd still be allowed to keep your PC.
Nobody ever explained quite why anyone would want to run their applications slowly and unreliably across the net when they could just run them from the hard drive. By 2002, the idea of the Application Service Provider will be given a quiet funeral, and buried next to the Network Computer.