Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Stick It: The New-New Thin Client

Originally written and published for eImagine Technology Group at blog.thinketg.com

Thin clients are nothing new. When I first got involved in computing in the 1980's, such a things were called "dumb terminals" (though I suppose that might not be "PC" by either definition of the acronym). The idea is that you provide just barely enough hardware to take input from the user and provide output - via display, speaker, etc - to the user as needed, but relegate the heavy-lifting and processing to a centralized system by pushing the data back and forth over the network. If you have used Citrix for work like many enterprise employees, you should be familiar with the concept.

Thin clients started to disappear as hardware advances were made that provided for cheaper computing in the home and office and, conversely, made the maintenance of the legacy mainframe systems that kept up the old terminals rather expensive. With a few exceptions since, one could say, "that was that."

I Dream in Flashes
A few years back I was having one of my super-nerdy conversations with my coworkers about the evolution of computing. I was telling them about my belief that continued miniaturization and diminishing costs of displays could lead to a new office environment that could revolutionize the way "work gets done."

In this shifted environment, desks and cubicles would be smaller and more vanilla and not assigned with any permanence. Why? Glad you asked, since I love bullet points...

  • Desks could be arranged around projects; once a project is completed, the group disperses.
  • Individuals could float nomadically to where they need to be to get maximum use of their time.
  • Phones using VOIP would recognize the person sitting there based on a presence identifier (think "key fob").
  • Each desk would have the equivalent of a dumb terminal on it; simply plug in a flash drive with your "PC" and you are up and running again.
  • Not sure where to keep paperwork? Secured personal storage lockers of various sizes are stacked in one area so as not to clutter the workspace or "flow" of the office.
At the time of discussion, however, I thought it might be (and it still might be) your mobile phone that serves as a sort of mobile PC when you dock it to the thin client on these envisioned desks. And then I heard about Ophelia.

PC (Android) Anywhere
Slated to begin shipping to developers soon, Dell is poised to begin sales of a $100 PC device that measures a little larger than a standard flash drive. The device, known as Ophelia, is still a little blurry on the specifications, but the design goal has been to plug it into an HDMI port on a display and enable that display as a "smart tv." Engadget reports that the device features Wifi, bluetooth, and cloud synchronization via Wyse PocketCloud and will run a flavor of Android (4.x). Speculation is also that it will include common clients for remote desktop computing such as VNC, a Windows-compatible Remote Desktop, and possibly even Citrix connectivity which will give enterprise workers access to those features if available.

It isn't a stretch to see bluetooth connecting a keyboard and mouse, cloud storage of files so you can get to your "stuff" from anywhere, and network connectivity not unlike modern Android phones and tablets. To call back to my "future desk" scenario, this means that having an HDMI compatible display (just get an HD TV, seriously), a bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and a power outlet around can provide for the quick-connect computing experience I described.

Final Thoughts
Is it a thin client? Not in the purest sense. That being said, I believe this is a device that has just enough of what it needs and the right software for what it doesn't. And while the Dell Ophelia "stick" isn't the only one if its kind out there, the price point and brand name might be enough to make this a consumer-grade, common thing. Once it hits some level of ubiquity (under any brand name) we will see developers back this sort of thing and begin to wiggle the devices into the enterprise.

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