Since 2009, there have been a few attempts at creating Android thin clients because the opportunity is so tantalizing. You'd leverage the most widely used OS in the world that has millions of apps that people use every day. It can run desktop virtualization clients, so you can Android-based apps alongside Windows apps. It's relatively secure, and, perhaps most of all, easy to manage with common MDM platforms.
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We've seen many products come and go, and for the most part they've all been affected by the same two problems:
- Android was not made to be a desktop operating system, so bolting on a keyboard and mouse interface resulted in lots of weirdness that was very, very frustrating. (Think soft keyboards popping up and no cut & paste shortcuts.)
- Android apps were meant to be used on mobile devices, meaning that even if you got the OS working great, each application used different APIs for their keyboard, or graphics, or web, or whatever and could easily short circuit the entire operation.
There have been Android all-in-one thin clients and Android sticks. Some have come from known thin client manufacturers, while others have come straight from the factory in China. Every time we've seen one, though, the user experience leaves something to be desired.
Today, that might be changing. It's been a few years since the last serious effort started shipping, which was Viewsonic's VSD242 Android-based Smart Display. Still available, it features Android Lollipop, which came out nearly three years ago in November of 2014. Though Viewsonic still sells them, of their efforts with Smart Displays seem to have been focused on a Linux-based OS.
Recently, I had a chance to look at the JC8600A Android thin client from Computerlab International, and though it was a preproduction unit I came away impressed. It runs Phoenix OS, which is based on the Android x86 project, which itself is based on Android Nougat (7.1.1). My brief experience with using the OS has given me hope that we finally have a version of Android that delivers a real desktop-like user experience.
The keyboard and mouse behave naturally and they layout is familiar enough that you kind of forget that you're using Android. For example, keyboard shortcuts like cut & paste work like you'd expect, there are context menus when you right-click, and there's a start menu and task bar that makes everything feel normal. And, there wasn't a soft keyboard in sight.
Problem 1: Solved.
With that out of the way, the only thing left to conquer are the applications. Unfortunately, this task is much harder since we're at the mercy of each app's developer as opposed to Android, where we just have one throat to choke. This is where companies like CLI (and every other company that's ever tried to use Android on a desktop) are going to find the most challenges.
Because I only saw a preproduction unit, it's not fair to point out oddities that I noticed since they can be fixed before the device is released, but it's important to note that, for the most part, what I saw was superficial. For example, these Android apps are made to run in full screen as opposed to inside windows, so their behavior in those desktop-esque situations can sometimes be a bit wonky. The encouraging thing is that when you get the apps working, they work very well and don't feel like someone tried to shoehorn a tablet app into a desktop. Fixing small behavioral problems is a lot easier than re-engineering an application from the ground up for a niche use case.
We'll know soon enough
There is an opportunity here for other vendors to release Android thin clients, too. We saw an effort from Jide with their consumer-focused Remix Mini, but while it might have been fine for a few things, it lived up to its relatively low price tag in terms of performance while also suffering from the same third-party application support problems. In fact, Jide recently announced that it was killing the product in order to focus on a more enterprise-focused device.
With two companies showing interest in Android-based PCs for the enterprise (and one shipping soon), plus the increase in Android's desktop functionality, as well as increased momentum around UEM, 2018 could be shaping up as "The Year of Android Thin Clients." Again, the third-party app vendors will have to get on board, but with a solid OS at the foundation and clear enterprise interest, that might be easier this time around.