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Docks, VDI features make smartphones more viable mobile thin clients

Vendors have taken cracks at turning phones into mobile thin clients before, but display protocol improvements and advancements in hardware make it more of a possibility now.

Smartphones could become more common thin clients, thanks to recent advancements in mobile hardware and virtualization software, but there aren't use cases for everyone.

Many vendors have taken a crack at turning smartphones into mobile thin clients, but IT shops have not widely adopted the capability because the user experience wasn't up to snuff. Remote display protocol improvements from VMware and Citrix, however, make the technology more likely to take off. Now, mobile device manufacturers are helping the cause, too, with Samsung rolling out a new dock that lets users connect its Galaxy S8 smartphone to a monitor.

"A lot of growth in the [desktop virtualization] market is attributed to folks wanting to be more mobile and access the different flavors of apps on lighter-weight devices," said Robert Young, research director at IDC.

'An important innovation'

In the past, smartphones often couldn't do an adequate job of running virtual desktops, because performance would suffer on a device that has a weak or inconsistent signal, which is more common on cellular networks.

Two recent improvements to remote display protocol technologies -- Citrix HDX Adaptive Transport and VMware Blast Extreme Adaptive Transport -- aim to address that problem. These tools adjust to the strength of a network by using algorithms to predict and correct errors or lags before they happen. The technology is designed to allow virtual desktops to run smoothly on high-latency networks, such as 3G.

The reason this hasn't taken off in the past is due to a lack of remote display protocol that optimizes network traffic.
Robert Youngresearch director at IDC

"The reason this hasn't taken off in the past is due to a lack of remote display protocol that optimizes network traffic," Young said. "It's an important innovation in the space."

Still, businesses shouldn't expect smartphones or other mobile thin clients to replace PCs anytime soon, Young said.

"When I undock and go to the airport and still want a big screen, will it get me down to one device?" he asked. "No, I'll still want my laptop."

DeX in effect

The new Samsung dock, DeX Station, casts a desktop version of the Android operating system from a Galaxy S8 or S8 Plus onto a connected monitor with a mouse and keyboard. Because Android supports Citrix XenDesktop and XenApp, VMware Horizon View and Amazon WorkSpaces, users can also access virtual desktops and apps.

"For those who are highly or extremely mobile, [the Samsung dock] would give them the opportunity to work out of an office on occasion, whether required by their employment or helpful for a project," said Greg Peters, technology engineer for the state of South Dakota, a VMware Horizon View customer.

In terms of native application support, most Android mobile apps will run on the Galaxy S8's desktop OS, but they are not built for the larger display. Google G Suite, Microsoft Office and others are optimized for the desktop version, and Samsung said it is working with Microsoft to add more apps.

The Galaxy S8 is not the first smartphone to take this approach. Motorola's Atrix, released in 2011, similarly featured a dock, but the desktop OS user interface was not ideal, and the company scrapped the idea in the following release. Windows 10 Mobile devices can connect to a monitor via a USB 3 display dock or wirelessly and use the Continuum feature to present a desktop interface on the display.  

Use cases for mobile thin clients

End users who don't need to enter a lot of information into a device while on the go might have a use case for the Galaxy S8 and DeX, said Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst of Moor Insights and Strategy in Austin, Texas. Police officers or construction workers, for example, could take pictures with their phones and enter a few notes, then write up full reports back at the office.

"It's not something that has a mass-market use case," Moorhead said.

The IT department at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., delivers virtual desktops to students and staff, but most people don't access them from mobile devices, said Michael Mathews, CIO and associate vice president for technology and innovation. Many university employees like using their phones to get work done, however, so he would be interested in DeX to make mobile VDI access smoother.

"Eighty percent of executives and staff members use their phone, so if there was a nice clean way to do virtual on mobile, I could sell that easy," Mathews said. 

Senior managing editor Alyssa Provazza contributed to this report.

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