This past week has been fascinating for me. I got my hands on my first Always Connected PC laptop made by Asus. And then Dell [a client of the author] announced their updated thin client desktop solution, the Dell Wyse 5270.
Both products are designed to replace their more traditional PC counterparts with solutions that are more cloud-centric, and both are big steps toward what will eventually be PC as a Service end-game.
What fascinates me about this is that Dell is arguably the leader in desktop thin client technology – having acquired Wyse some time ago – but they’re the only major Microsoft [also a client of the author] partner not producing an Always Connected PC product.
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Reviews on this latest Microsoft initiative have been mixed, largely because the platform is brand new, and there’s clearly a learning curve with it. However, given the fixes are mostly done and were tied to mistakes with software load and settings issues, they were manageable by any company with a strong management platform…which Dell has. This – coupled with Dell’s uniquely powerful experience with thin clients – suggests Dell could’ve done this best. Instead, Dell decided to not do one at all, which was arguably safer but opens them to competitive threat if one of the others gets this tech sorted out first.
Let’s delve into both these harbingers of the future:
What this new thin client from Dell and the Always Connected PC laptop bring to market is an experience much closer to an appliance then your typical PC experience. The irony for me is that thin clients are basically the current iteration of the old-fashioned terminal, something that defined computing before the PC and was largely eliminated by it.
That eradication gave us a ton more control as users. In exchange, however, we lost reliability, users had to deal with software upgrades and patches, and we had to contend with overly long boot times. I still remember my first OS/2 terminal. It worked just like a terminal, except it crashed a lot, took nearly 5 minutes to boot up and it didn’t have a light pen (which I never did figure out how to use anyway). Since then, the thin client vendors have been trying to give us a solution that has the user flexibility of a PC and recovers the appliance-like experience of a terminal.
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Dell Wyse 5070
The Wyse 5070 has a full selection of ports, can be configured with decent graphics capability and is both relatively small and relatively attractive on a desktop. Pushing the envelope on performance, it will support up to four 4K monitors. In talking to the team at Dell World, it has been well-received on the trading floor, in healthcare (for viewing charts), defense (map and battlefield management), architecture and design (in a variety of industries).
The benefits are strong centralized management and security, a small desktop footprint, low noise and heat, extremely high reliability, near-instant on and low distributed energy use/heat. This last has always been one of the most interesting benefits, because if you put a lot of high performance workstations on a floor they can easily overwhelm the HVAC system…not to mention overload power distribution, forcing very expensive office upgrades.
If you can centralize this performance in the glass house, you can more easily deal with the heat and noise and provide a far less expensive upgrade path if you need to increase technology density (putting more machines on desktops) and/or performance at the desktop.
There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s little you could do with your PC that you can’t do with this kind of thin client product with the proper back end. However, over time, we’ve mostly shifted from desktop to laptop computers, because most users need to be flexible in terms of where they work.
Asus Always Connected PC
Unlike thin clients – which, truth be told, have been in the market for decades – the Always Connected PC platform didn’t exist before this year. This platform is a blend of a PC and smartphone (without phone capability). Unlike a desktop solution, a mobile solution must have off-line capability – which is what’s made developing a successful mobile thin client so difficult.
Currently, the Always Connected PC is the closest piece of hardware that blends the ideals of thin clients with the mobility of a laptop. The product is ideally always on, syncs in the background and can host a remote client if connects with high-enough bandwidth. This platform currently and predominantly uses a 4G WAN connection.
As I mentioned, this is brand-new tech and has a bit of a steep learning curve. The problems – which have to do with the fact that 64-bit non-native apps don’t run well or at all, and background sync isn’t working – either have been resolved or will be resolved with patches.
As a thin client implementation, however, 4G just isn’t adequate and 5G doesn’t roll out until next year. Which suggests this platform’s best opportunity to fill this gap will be Version 2 of the offering, with 5G support. (And generally, for something like this, Version 1 offerings are for those that need some aspect of it desperately enough to accept the issues with a typical v1 product).
The old saying “explorers get the arrows, settlers get the land” applies here. We are still in the explorer phase of this offering.
Back to terminal
With Microsoft’s move to become far more cloud-centric, the eventual move to some kind of thin client platform is a given. The strongest iteration of that for now is something like the Dell Wyse 5070. But I believe the future, much like it was with PCs, will be more mobile. The closest thing to that currently is the Always Connected PC…but it is at least a generation out from being able to address this potential. 5G will make an enormous difference, and while that begins rolling out next year, it probably won’t hit critical mass until 2020.
The good news is that a far more reliable, secure and scalable PC experience is available now for those of us still on desktop computers. The bad news is that those of us that are mobile (ie, most of us), we’re still a couple years out…
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