Could cheap Windows 10 devices + MDM be the ultimate thin clients?

Real Windows, easy management, some local apps, some apps delivered remotely... Does this hit the right balance?

For years we’ve been tossing around all sorts of ideas about various devices that could be the "ultimate thin client."

What does this mean? Think of a spectrum ranging from thin/zero clients on one end to traditional fully-managed Windows on the other. In the middle of the spectrum are all sorts of “in between” devices. When we look at these, a few common themes emerge:

  • They often have alternative operating systems or form factors.
  • They’re cheaper and easier to manage than full Windows PCs.
  • They have browsers, so users can access all their web apps.
  • Users can also take advantage of local native apps.
  • Windows apps can be delivered via RDS, VDI, or DaaS.

Here are some past examples that we’ve written about. Some of these have been more successful than others:

  • iPads or Android tablets with keyboards: Whether or not you would want to use one of these is really just a matter of personal preference, but we can say that these are probably the most successful examples. The iPad Pro brought a lot of multitasking improvements; Samsung devices have a split screen mode; and Android N will spread multi-window support even farther. The Citrix X1 Mouse can also help a lot.
  • Chromebooks + desktop virtualization: A good concept, but some people complain that Chromebooks don’t really do enough when they’re offline. There’s also the disadvantage that you have to use HTML5 remote desktop clients, which have limited features. At least Chromebooks have really taken off in education, though.
  • Android thin clients and Android PCs: This was well intentioned, but unfortunately Android still has major issues when used as a keyboard and mouse-based desktop OS. Many apps are pointless or useless on a big screen, and browsing is a pain because at the end of the day you’re still using a mobile browser.

But now we have another option: What about using cheap Windows 10 devices and managing them with MDM?

Managing Windows 10 with MDM APIs is much more lightweight than traditional client management, and you can take advantage of a lot of new security features. You don’t have to re-image a device before you deploy it—you just enroll it in MDM. You don’t have to update it—Microsoft will keep it up to date with Windows as a service. In fact, Microsoft will also keep unsigned apps from running, make sure it’s healthy, and scan it for malware. These are basically all the same ideas that we got used to with MDM for iOS and Android.

Since the devices are still Windows, the experience is a lot more familiar to users than Chromebooks. They can run Office locally, they have a full desktop browser, and overall everything else just feels “normal.”

Like other ultimate thin client devices we’ve written about, we’re assuming you will still deliver a lot of your main Windows apps remotely. The advantage here is that you get to use full remote desktop clients, instead of just HTML5 or mobile clients, so the experience is better. Printing, USB redirection, file type associations, and local drives all work the way they’re supposed to.

On top of all of this, there are all sorts of interesting cheaper Windows 10 devices these days, including 2-in-1 devices, tablets, and touch screen laptops.

So what do you think?

One potential issue is that we just need more time to kick the tires on Windows 10 MDM. For a lot of IT shops, it would be a big change to trust a Windows device without re-imaging it, or to trust Windows as a service updates. Also, some cheaper devices might not have the hardware required to support all of the new Windows 10 security features.

The other issue is that even though this idea works in theory, we still need to be sure we’re doing it for all the right reasons. Do we want a different way to manage devices? Is VDI/DaaS/RDS really right for us? Will the numbers actually pencil out to be cheaper?

Regardless, now that Windows 10 is here with support for MDM and other new security features, it gives us more new options on the spectrum of devices and management. At events this year, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people that I’ve talked to that are seriously interested in using MDM to streamline Windows management.

Using Windows 10, MDM, and desktop virtualization together could be a sweet spot for some use cases, or it could even end up being the ultimate thin client.

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