Can Android thin client devices make the OS suitable for desktops?

Android thin clients might sound really cool, but actually porting the Android OS to a desktop comes with a lot of gotchas.

There has been some talk about whether it's a good idea to run Android as a desktop operating system. While the reasons to consider it are compelling, there are many downsides to this scenario right now.

Android thin client devices can bring agnosticism to thin client hardware but at a pretty hefty cost to the user experience. When you get right down to it, getting a touch and gesture-based operating system to work with mouse-and-keyboard-centric apps is more trouble than it's worth. Read on to learn more about why you might want to run Android as a desktop OS -- and why you might want to skip it.

What's so great about an Android thin client?

Android thin clients could serve as open source replacements for Linux thin clients. That would offer a lot of native apps, a familiar interface, the same comprehensive remoting clients available on Linux now, plus the ability to put one OS on all thin client hardware regardless of the manufacturer.

What are the drawbacks to running Android as a desktop OS?

There are lots of points to consider before you can run Android as a desktop OS. Because the operating system wasn't built with desktops in mind, some functionality and integration gets lost. Android is for touch devices, but most desktop virtual machines (VMs) use mice and keyboards, so you'll have to do a little extra work to make sure touch devices are supported in the VM. Also, there aren't any guest additions for Android, so integration between Android and the host OS will be limited.

Keep in mind that most of the thin clients on the market have Intel-based hardware, and adding Android to that is difficult. If ARM processors move out from the mobile realm, then Android could break into the thin client market, but getting Android on x86 isn't easy. Current x86 builds of Android don't have all the same features as Android on ARM, so you won't get the features in a VM that you would on an Android smartphone or tablet.

Additionally, thin client hardware is built to do only one thing, so a dedicated thin client will always provide better performance than the Android alternative. Letting software do the hardware's job results in a poor user experience. Plus, there are problems with getting updates to the Android OS for mobile devices, and those same problems are likely to persist when you put Android on a thin client.

Are any companies working on Android thin clients?

Dell and ViewSonic are both putting together Android-based thin client devices, and both potential offerings integrate mobile device management. Dell's Project Ophelia is an Android mini PC that plugs into an HDMI port and uses host power to boot an Android OS. It can connect to remote desktops and run corporate Android apps, plus traditional Android apps. Dell hopes that Ophelia will be useable as a thin client, remote access or kiosk tool. ViewSonic's Android thin client works with Citrix XenMobile.

This was first published in December 2013

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