We've written in the past about how cool Android thin clients would be because we could run mobile apps in the same plane as remote applications, giving us the best of both worlds. We've written even more recently about how the execution of that vision tends to fall short due to the fact that the OS and applications are being written for 5-finger multitouch and a tablet form factor while we're trying to use them in a desktop environment.
The thin client industry sees this as a solvable problem, though, and at Synergy there were two companies showing off Android thin clients: Dell and ViewSonic. Each of them has a unique take on them, with ViewSonic's message being strictly desktop-oriented business and Dell's being about portable work (with some play involved, too). Both also focus on management via MDM, which is one of the highlights of the solution.
Both companies also indicated that the performance of the HDX SoC and other so-called Zero Clients aren't as good as we'd hoped for, given what they cost. They seem confident that they can deliver a similar or better experience using Android and compatible hardware for less money. Of course, it would be hard to do an apples to apples comparison, that's the gist of the message.
Dell Project Ophelia
I wrote about Dell's announcement of Project Ophelia right after it was announced at CES in January. Ophelia is essentially an Android Mini-PC designed to plug into (and receive power from) an MHL-enabled HDMI port (MHL is a separate protocol that uses the same ports). The message at the time as that it was a work/play device that you could take with you in place of your laptop and tablet, and use on a touch screen television or with a bluetooth keyboard and mouse (which I'd have to bring with me).
I harpooned that idea, mainly because of the image in my head of sitting on the edge of a hotel bed with my bluetooth keyboard in my lap while trying to get work done, or having my arms get tired as I stood in front of a mythical hotel touchscreen TV touching games or virtual keyboards. I did, however, leave the door open at the end of the article by saying that if a vendor were to tweak the OS perfectly, they could get part of the way to a good solution. The challenge is dealing with the apps, because almost nobody is writing applications for a desktop form factor.
At Synergy, I got a preview of what Dell has been up to with Ophelia, and they have done a lot to make the OS useable in the desktop form factor. The marketing message has also changed a bit. Now they're talking about using Ophelia devices as a thin client, remote access, or kiosk solution. While gaming has been downplayed for the time being, it's only temporary. Dell is working on something that could make using this as a play time device somewhat interesting. We'll have to wait until later in the year to learn about it, though.
Here's a video of Dell's Project Ophelia in action, shot at Citrix Synergy last month (link opens in a new page):
Management is another key to this for Dell, since they also have Cloud Client Manager, an MDM solution that came along with the Wyse acquisition. Adding MDM to the mix means that IT can have full control over these devices from a configuration and security standpoint, so it's still a managed thin client. Frankly, any MDM solution would work on this since it's an Android device, but as the manufacturer of both systems, Dell can almost certainly do a little bit more with CCM.
As I mentioned, Dell wasn't the only one showing off Android-based thin clients. I got the tip from Citrix ahead of time that ViewSonic would be showing off at 24" Android all-in-one thin client at the show, and when I stopped by the booth during the opening party it was boxed up in the booth waiting to be unleashed the next day. A few people at Citrix were anxious for me to get a look at the device since they were familiar with my generally negative perception of Android as a thin client, so I went by with an open mind to check it out.
ViewSonic took a different approach to the matter than Dell did by building the device just as a thin client to go along with the other thin clients that they offer. Oh, by the way, ViewSonic also makes thin clients. Man, it's hard to keep track of all of the thin client vendors out there.
So why was Citrix pointing me to ViewSonic? That became obvious when I arrived at the booth: ViewSonic has developed this device exclusively for use with XenMobile. When you unbox and boot the device, you are immediately shown the enrollment screen for XenMobile. ViewSonic's Mike Holstein recorded a demo with me that shows that process (link opens in a new page):
Most of the demo centered around deploying applications with XenMobile, which looks pretty slick. We also saw a bit of the performance when connecting to a Windows 7 desktop. Things looked all right, but Google Earth was sluggish because it was being remoted from the server. Mike cautioned that this has not been released yet, and that there are still improvements to be made. I asked if this was designed with a work/play mentality in mind, and was told that this is all about work.
The Bottom Line
There's a groundswell of Android-based thin clients appearing on the market (both of these will be released in Q3), and I'm sure others are working on solutions, too. What's interesting is to see the differences in the approach. Dell is taking the dual-purpose, business in front, party in the back approach. They like the high portability and low visibility afforded by the small package, and it's hard to blame them, although whether or not people will want to use this as a portable device remains to be seen (and largely hangs on how Dell's gaming solution is perceived). ViewSonic, on the other hand, is sticking with only all-in-one devices and a strictly business approach, which also has its merits. All-in-one devices don't "walk away" as much as pocket-sized devices and come with all the hardware needed to support the device already there.
Both have done an excellent job of integrating MDM into the solution and of tweaking the stock Android OS for the desktop form factor. I wonder if the ViewSonic solution really will remain bound to XenMobile or if it will expand to a more general-purpose device with more management and connectivity options. Both companies will need to keep performance high and costs low to reinforce the argument that this is a better solution than SoC-based systems, but only time will tell if that can be done and if Android will be widely accepted as a thin client platform. At the end of the day, that $499 Android all-in-one has got do deliver something to me that I can't get with an SoC or even a repurposed PC. Granted, the Ophelia device from Dell will be much cheaper (rumored to be somewhere south of $150), but you'll still need to acquire a compatible display, keyboard, and mouse. That, hopefully, won't cost $350 more, but it does add to the overall cost of the solution.
At the end of the day, there are some interesting aspects for Android thin clients, but I'll wait until Q3 or Q4 to pass a new judgement. Consider me dubious, but open-minded at this point. Perhaps by the end of the year I'll be upgraded to "Cautiously Optimistic" :)