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Any VDI shop would love a good, simple and universal thin client that doesn't require a lot of management, and HTML5 clients might be the closest to meeting those specifications.
HTML5 browsers have become a viable VDI client and exist on a variety of devices. With the addition of a few features, these browsers can be a great client for running a virtual desktop.
Most modern VDI products include the ability to use an HTML5 browser as a client. Any HTML5 browser can act as a thin client using the standard HTML5 features of WebSockets and canvas. A key benefit of using an HTML5 client is that, unlike browser clients in the past, there is no requirement to download extensions or plug-ins to the computer. Everything you require is baked into the browser.
With an HTML5 browser client, virtual desktop deployment is easy because the only configuration requirements are the browser and a URL. All users have to do is open a new tab, go to a logon URL, and in less than 10 seconds they can access their virtual desktop in that tab on their laptop. Obvious use cases include Internet kiosks or employee-owned devices serving as VDI clients.
HTML5 browsers are everywhere
So, what kinds of devices have HTML5 browsers? First off, every desktop or laptop operating system has multiple choices -- Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox all support HTML5 browsers. Most mobile OSes, including Chrome on Android devices and Safari on Apple iOS have HTML5 browsers, and you can even use more limited devices, such as a Chromebook or Chromebox. If Apple adds support for a Bluetooth mouse, then even the Apple TV box could serve as an HTML5 client.
Devices with an HTML5 browser can be quite cheap, comparable to a low-cost thin client. Plus, cheap thin clients are often only cheap to purchase, because some of them have very poor management tools that end up leaving IT admins with plenty of bugs and frequent updates to handle. I recently dealt with an update to a thin client feature set that caused the client to crash randomly while the user was trying to work.
Drawbacks of HTML5 clients
A Web browser is not a perfect VDI client. It doesn't use your VDI vendor's display protocol, with all its enhancements, and you also won't get the highest possible graphical performance. Without the optimized display protocol, users need more bandwidth for HTML5 access than specialized clients would need. Of course, the increase in available wide area network and mobile bandwidth helps out. In the distant past, I used a GSM phone to connect to a Citrix server desktop at 9,600 bps. Nowadays, I can reliably provide my phone with multiple Mbps of throughput in almost any city in the world. Bandwidth is plentiful and cheap for mobile and work-from-home users.
HTML5 clients also won't provide all the device redirection that is included in other modern VDI clients. Currently HTML5 doesn't have a framework to redirect USB devices, because who -- apart from VDI shops -- wants a website to directly access your USB devices? On the other hand, if all you need is file transfer, most HTML5 browsers can already handle this with support from your VDI product. A Web browser is not the ideal client for every VDI deployment, particularly for environments with a heavy focus on security and compliance. However, with recent improvements in browser technology and the availability of bandwidth, there are a lot of scenarios where using an HTML5 browser for desktop virtualization is a great choice. Even if it's not the only client type you use, a browser-based option is great for bring your own device or corporate-owned, personally enabled mobile devices.
The case in favor of an HTML5 client
Pitfalls of using HTML5 clients
What to look for in an HTML5 client