Samsung is trying the “Nirvana Phone” concept with Galaxy S8 “DeX”. Here are my initial thoughts.

Can one device that acts as both a phone and a desktop really take off? Others have tried, but maybe Samsung pushing it on a popular Android phone will help.

Today Samsung unveiled their new flagship phone, the Galaxy S8, and one of the many big features is that you can hook it up to a monitor, mouse, and keyboard, and use it to power a desktop-like environment. This is sometimes called the “Nirvana Phone” concept, and it’s very similar to what Windows 10 Mobile offers with the Continuum feature set.

Since I just reviewed another Nirvana phone, the Windows 10 Mobile-powered and Continuum-enabled HP Elite x3, I feel especially qualified to comment on the Galaxy S8.

I’ll leave my full judgement until after I’ve had a chance to try it, but as soon as I heard about this I wanted to get my initial thoughts out.

What we know about it

The “Desktop Experience” (a.k.a. DeX) is coming out with the highly-anticipated Samsung Galaxy S8, at a time when the smartphone market has settled down and everybody’s wondering what the next big thing will be. (VR? Voice control? Home automation? Live video?)

With DeX, You can hook up the S8 to a monitor, mouse, and keyboard, and then you’re in an Android-based desktop environment. From Samsung: “DeX will also provide an ultimate productivity environment with a completely redesigned Android UI optimized for use with a keyboard and mouse including multiple-resizable windows, contextual menus and a desktop version Web browser with Samsung Internet.” And of course it will support all the Knox EMM and hardware security features.

EUC vendors are getting in on this. VMware is partnering with Samsung to provide Horizon, Workspace One, and AirWatch; and Citrix is collaborating with Samsung to provide Receiver, XenApp/XenDesktop, and XenMobile. (Citrix also pointed out that Samsung is using Receiver in the demos at the live announcement events.) The idea is that when docked, the S8 and DeX make a good thin client, and you can use MDM and desktop virtualization to make sure users have all the apps they need.

My thoughts

DeX already has a big advantage over Windows 10 and Continuum, because it’s based on a popular Android device. Enough said.

However, there are a lot of details that need to be well-refined to make the mobile device-based desktop work. It has to be easy to connect and disconnect, and context has to flow logically from one environment the other. When you put a mouse and keyboard in a user’s hands, they expect a lot more features that mobile OSes don’t always have on their own. And users lean heavily on browsers when they’re on desktops (especially since many Android apps aren’t great at larger sizes), so they have to be rock solid and full-featured, too. Again, I’ll reserve my judgement until I get to try the S8 and DeX in person, but you can see that there’s a high bar.

Who will use this thing?

Personally, I think that most (if not all) business productivity users either need or would benefit from using two devices. If you require a dock or a bunch of other accessories to go with your phone, you might as well just have another real device. Even if a phone and desktop system based on a single device works flawlessly, having two gives you redundancy in case you lose one.

The best use case I see is for shift workers and field workers. When I reviewed the HP Elite x3, I wrote, “There’s a lot of potential for industry verticals like logistics, manufacturing, healthcare, or field service, where users have line-of-business mobile devices but also have to spend a bit of time on a desktop. In these cases, supplying docks could be easier and cheaper than supplying and managing full desktops, laptops, or getting into desktop virtualization. It just depends how the numbers pencil out, and for some companies, I’m sure they certainly could come out in favor of the Elite x3 or something like it.”

For consumers? Maybe this will work well for people that only have one device, but also need to do occasional tasks that are easier on a desktop. (Think bureaucratic housekeeping tasks like renewing your driver's license on outdated, mobile-unfriendly websites.) However, this assumes that that it’s easier to get your hands on a dock than a Chromebook or any other old or cheap laptop.

And maybe people that geek out on gadgets will like it. Since it’s a Samsung, the larger market means that more people will give it a try, so we’ll see.

Wrap up

Overall, even though I have my doubts, I’m open to seeing what happens and would welcome being proven wrong. Samsung is the biggest name to ever get behind the Nirvana phone concept, and they’re basing it on a phone that will be popular, so it could have the best chance for success. On the other hand, the concept just might not make enough sense to move beyond a small niche. I look forward to getting my hands on an S8 and DeX to see how it compares to Windows Continuum. What do you think?

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"DeX already has a big advantage over Windows 10 and Continuum, because it’s based on a popular Android device."

I'd argue the opposite is true: Windows 10 and Continuum have a big advantage over DeX, because they're based on a popular PC operating system. If you're looking for a device that can function like a PC, wouldn't you want it to have Windows?
Yeah, I agree, when people think desktop they think Windows (or Mac). And my last experience using an Android desktop (a Jide Remix Mini) wasn't great.

But my rebuttal is that the Windows 10 desktop on a Continuum-enabled phone isn't a "real desktop" either—no local Win32 apps, it doesn't have free-floating windows (yet), there's not as much extensibility, etc—so when you get down to it, Continuum and DeX are currently equal on that front. (Though DeX probably has more apps.) 

And even if a Windows 10 Continuum phone gets support for Win32 apps, via that Qualcomm announcement from the Windows Hardware event in December, the phone is still a Windows 10 Mobile phone...