Citrix's "nirvana" phone is here in the form of the Motorola Atrix. It's awesome, but not nirvana.

For the past year or so, Citrix's Chris Fleck has been writing about something he's calling the "Nirvana Phone." The Nirvana Phone is not a specific device from a specific handset maker, rather, it's more of Chris envisioning how some "nirvana" yet-to-be-built phone of the future might be used in the context of enterprise desktops, applications, and mobility.

For the past year or so, Citrix’s Chris Fleck has been writing about something he’s calling the “Nirvana Phone.” The Nirvana Phone is not a specific device from a specific handset maker, rather, it’s more of Chris envisioning how some “nirvana” yet-to-be-built phone of the future might be used in the context of enterprise desktops, applications, and mobility. Last week at CES, Motorola announced their "ATRIX" phone, and Chris wrote a new blog post claiming that the "Nirvana Phone is here." But is it really? I'm not so sure...

In this article, I'll talk about what the nirvana phone concept is and why I think it won't have much real impact. Then Citrix's Chris Fleck will share his views that specifically address my concerns. Fun stuff!

What is the Nirvana Phone?

The basic idea is that in the future there will be an “ultimate” phone that will both (1) be useful as a mobile device on its own in the standard mobile ways, and (2) be able to accept a full-size keyboard & mouse and be able to hook up to a standard full-size display, essentially transforming it into a thin client.

The idea is that your Nirvana Phone would contain all the typical phone things like your data, identities, mobile apps, access to your enterprise apps and desktops,contacts, email, etc. Then instead of carrying a laptop with you in addition to your phone, you’d just plug your Nirvana Phone into a keyboard/mouse/display whenever you need to use a real computer. The “hotel cubicles” at companies could provide these basic accessories, as could hotel rooms, conferences, juice bars, etc.

In the Nirvana Phone world, users would still have laptops and desktops for real work, but that the Nirvana Phone would additionally give them the option to travel without their laptops. Ideally the Nirvana Phone would connect directly into a display (via HDMI --> DVI) and either use a USB or Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.

Chris argues that many industry trends will drive the concept, including office hoteling with companies providing displays, LCD TVs with DVI/VGA inputs, hosted virtual desktops, etc.

Why the Nirvana Phone concept won’t matter

As a geek, my initial reaction to Chris’s thoughts fell somewhere between “Hell yeah!” and “I can’t wait!” But the more I think about it, the more I begin to wonder whether the Nirvana Phone concept will actually matter?

(And to clarify, I believe 100% that the Nirvana Phone will happen. I'm just arguing that it won't grow past the "party trick" stage.)

My main argument against it is that the whole docking / connecting process is too cumbersome, and that by the time that's worked out then all displays on the planet will have the capabilities to run HTML5 browsers and will be able to connect to virtual desktops and apps on their own. After all, just about every new TV already has the capabilities to watch YouTube and Netflix videos built-in, so browsers and Citrix Receivers can't be too far behind. (So in essence, the display becomes the thin client, rather than the phone becoming the thin client.)

If thin clients are a commodity, then why does each user need to carry his or her own? For companies providing hotel cubes, why not just pop a thin client in there that's built for full size displays? Why limit yourself to a phone with a lower resolution display and lower horsepower?

And when your phone is docked, how do you use it as a phone? Do you need to use a headset now? Can you be on the phone and have a full screen desktop at the same time? What happens when you want to go to the bathroom? Do you have to undock your phone and then re-dock it when you get back?

And it's not like the phone is going to have your documents on it or anything. (Even if it does, since phones are easy to lose they're not used as anyone's primary storage location. So you can access your data in the cloud from your real thin client just like you can from your phone.)

I guess my point is that a Nirvana Phone might be nice to have, but I don't think anyone will be able to travel without a laptop because of it. And if/when these nirvana devices become fully featured, by that time every screen you'd be able to use the Nirvana device with will have its own inherent ability to do what the nirvana device can do.

By the way, I still think we're waiting for the Nirvana Phone. The ATRIX is cool, but it only outputs 1280x1024.. hardly a resolution for getting real work done.

You know what? If using the Nirvana Phone means that I need to carry around the dock, a mini-HDMI plug, an HDMI-to-DVI adapter, and a bluetooth headset in order to be able to "dock" with a random KVM in a hotel cube, for all that weight / space in my bag, why can't I just carry around a PlugPC thin client? The plugPC is the same size, but it will also give me the ability to have the full featured Citrix Receiver, 1600x1200 resolution, probably a better experience (since it's built to be a thin client), AND I can use my phone like a normal phone.. i.e. I don't have to use it via bluetooth, I can get up and walk around, etc.



Response from Citrix's Chris Fleck

Brian, I agree with much of your commentary and analysis... except for the conclusion. I concur that at some point in the future, many new high-end PC displays will come with embedded CPUs and internet connectivity, just as TVs are starting to appear today. And yes there will be HTML5 and Citrix Receivers available, so from my perspective that will be a great solution.

However I think that scenario is years away, and even when available they will have a premium price. Then consider that the hundreds of millions of legacy VGA/DVI/HDMI PC displays won't be discarded -- they'll be the ones moved to the guest/hotel cubicles. ;-)

The real debate is timing. Given the availability of the ATRIX now, this device plus a new wave of Nirvana phones will fill a large opportunity before the installed base of PC displays are primarily internet-enabled devices.

Regarding the objections:

  • Docking and connecting is easy, but finding common docks may be a bit of an obstacle. However, cheap HDMI & USB cables are readily available as well as bluetooth keyboards.
  • How do you make a phone call at the same time? It turns out the ATRIX does support multitasking with Citrix sessions, so you can have your phone docked and use the speakerphone or Bluetooth headset for making calls while working on Citrix sessions (even full screen virtual desktops).
  • Why carry around a Thin Client capable device? If you are going to carry around a smartphone anyway, why not carry one that does everything ?
  • Undocking to do something else is painless and completely secure. No need to log off before leaving a public workstation. No need to re-authenticate when you return or move to another station (within session policy limits).
  • The ATRIX output is "only" 1280x1024, and this may be limiting for a power user at home or the office. But while traveling, this matches most laptop capability. Many power users today have more than one PC. The ATRIX wont replace the primary one, but it could replace the second or third... For me it didn't replace my laptop, but it did replace a thin client I kept on my desk for ancillary access when my primary laptop is busy.
  • To clarify the comparison to carrying a PlugPC.. (BTW, I am a fan of the PlugPC but don’t see myself carrying it around.) The ATRIX HD dock is not required to carry around, you can optionally plug the HDMI cable directly from the device to the display. The phone screen becomes a trackpad. For extended use, power is available from the USB plug. Yes that’s another cable, but everyone that travels with a smartphone brings a charger & cable.  For now a DVI adapter and HDMI cable is a good idea to travel with but for a cost of $10 this could easily be made available at random KVM locations as this solution becomes popular. So the Bluetooth headset is the net add longer term (unless you use one already) assuming the speakerphone is not appropriate. So you could carry around a PlugPC and get better video, but that means carrying that unit, plus you need wired Ethernet access and permissions plus power/USB cable. This could work at some locations but is more limiting  than the wireless access from a smartphone that you carry anyway. Plus the assumption is you are buying only the ATRIX, not a smartphone plus PlugPC.

Additional reasons to consider a Nirvana Phone:

Besides the office "hotel cubicle" as mentioned which is a good use case, there are others as well:

  • For businesses that are buying smart phones PLUS laptops for users who don't need heavy local processing or offline access, why not consider just one device instead? The expense of fully managed laptops today also forces many companies to limit who gets the equipment to certain job roles. The Nirvana Phone could broaden the scope to additional roles as well making employees more productive. Plus this could provide a great disaster recovery solution without providing everyone a laptop as some companies do. The ATRIX laptop dock option also provides additional appeal as a laptop alternative.
  • For enabling BYOC, the Nirvana Phone could allow safe and controlled access inside a company campus. One objection I have heard about BYOC is IT's concerns about a foreign laptop plugging an Ethernet cable into the RJ-45 jack somewhere inside and spreading a worm. The Nirvana Phone connection is Wireless only and could be limited to a public access WiFi or just the carrier 3G/4G connection.
  • For travelers only making a presentation, the ability to drive a meeting room projector from a Nirvana Phone would be a welcome option. Even impromptu occasions inside company office meetings, being able to pull-up a slide deck without carrying a laptop around, plug in, and show the latest data is a productivity enhancer.
  • For safe access at Internet cafes and business center PCs, I use these locations for search and surfing but I don't trust an internet café for banking or anything work-related that a keystroke logger could compromise. If I could just use the display and keyboard with my NirvanaPhone there would be nothing to be concerned over.
  • Beyond the thin client capability and it being a high-end smartphone, the ATRIX has another great feature: a large display and keyboard access to local Android apps. This means that any local Android app can show up in a window of the ATRIX webtop alongside XenApp sessions. There are many times I would like to do something  like see an SMS text on my PC display and respond from my keyboard versus poking the smartphone screen.

And lastly... What's wrong with buying something because it's cool? Tens of Millions of us do it! (even when it doesn't make good phone calls...)

If you haven't seen the Atrix yet, here's a decent overview from CES:

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