I must commend Chris Fleck at Citrix. He has put forward a vision of a world that does not need laptops as we know them today. In January, Chris posted an article calledThe Nirvana device a Smartphone as a PC alternative on the official Citrix blog site. The idea is brilliant. If you already have a computer in a small form factor, why not take advantage of it for other uses. Instead of lugging around a laptop, why not just take the pieces you really need. Once you reach your destination, just plug in the small computer into a docking station which gives the same experience as a desktop.
I highly recommend reading this post. It is a taste of things to come. The momentum is building and the companies involved are beginning to understand the value of small portable computers (PDA/Smartphone). Chris mentioned that XenDesktop could be used in this case. This is very relevant to the experience the PortICA team has. The value would be that the desktop would be hosted from a common place and the grunt would live in the data center. The actual benefit would be derived at the “client” end since the small computer would be acting as a “thin client” but yet be able to give the full experience of Windows to desktop sized devices (keyboard, mouse, video). It’s a powerful message. Something as small as a mobile phone could be strong enough to run a fully loaded Windows desktop with the full desktop experience. All this from a device you can easily carry and also use as a phone/camera/music player.
There would be risk of overloading the feature set of the device and potentially confusing the consumer market. However, given that mobile phones already thrive on this model of adding new features and that the majority of the consumers are fairly young, it is not hard to see initial acceptance building.
I believe the real value comes from being truly portable. Laptops are portable but their bulkiness and weight adds up over time. There is a threshold for how long I’m willing to hold on to one of these laptops while moving around. Large airports can be a real test, especially when you have to pass through painful security checkpoints that treat laptops as potential WMD. I never get tired of carrying a mobile phone however. Mobile phones also don’t need cases. That alone is a big plus.
There are lots of cool comments in the post from Chris and one of them was to make everything wireless. This is completely valid and should be coming in force assuming that things like wireless USB catch on. Obviously Bluetooth is already in that space. The key is to find the right mix of technology that best suites the environment.
There are all kinds of security issues that pop up. Given that you no longer have a fully contained system (laptop) for your keyboard, mouse, and video, you are going to need to trust other devices. This leaves you a bit vulnerable if these devices are not under the control of you or your corporation. There is nothing stopping someone else from modifying a public docking station in order to gain personal and financial information. There would be a need to identify trust with unknown devices. From everything I’ve read, this is a difficult task. It is much safer to have full control and this implies that the individual and the company have safe havens for doing work. In most corporate environments, this would already be true. The IT worry is that users are always going to be more risky than what they should. Instead of striking a balance, most companies will decide just to clamp down to the point that makes all forms of semi-risky behavior impossible. The users get frustrated and just either give up or break the rules even further. It seems that solving the trust issues is going to be one of the most important problems to solve for the “Nirvana” solution.
In the very long term, the goal would be to take nothing with you. This implies that the work you do actually resides in the network (or cloud depending on your favorite phrase). People like Google have experimented heavily with this and have come out ahead. It seems like some of the initial burst of activity has died down a bit but the message is clear. Companies like Google are targeting creating decentralized environments that allow you to continue work from any machine hooked up to the Internet. Most of this is fairly small stuff when it comes to storage but the progression would take it to the point that a user could have hundreds of gigabytes on the network without any idea of where it really lives and yet be able to use that information from anywhere. This is the kind of thinking that will lead to the desktop becoming more of a amalgamation of resources than just one system. It’s hard to explain but it is perhaps best to describe as the net becoming more like a human brain in how it processes and stores information. Once it gets past a certain point, things will just take care of itself without the need of external manipulation. Yet, the user will always get the benefit of this “brain” which resides on the net.
The trend is also towards this “brain” being a shadow of the user. This would occur in such a way that users could create environments on the web that do work for them and be the agent in the virtual world. I know this all sounds a bit like science fiction. However, the elements of what is to come are already here and it does not take too much to see how these pieces are going to fit together.
Getting closer to reality, the next big step will be to reduce the footprint of the laptop to the point that it is actually comfortable to carry around for long periods of time. The advancement in this area comes from better networking and the ability to have small devices drive large ones. It also comes from the vision that laptops aren’t always best and that converging technology means that we need to start thinking smaller might actually mean also being better.
Until better input/output technology comes around (perfect voice recognition/speech generation, fold/roll video screen, perfect laser input or equivalent) we are going to have to use what we have. The most obvious path is to specialize the devices for what they do best. This means accepting that mobile phones have small screens and lousy input (keyboard) for the most part. These weaknesses can be negated by allowing USB access (host) or to drive via wireless (Bluetooth) to decent keyboard and mice devices. The video hardware on the device needs to be able to support desktop resolutions and have an interface to getting to a standard VGA or DVI input. There is a new class of video devices based on USB that could be a decent alternative. Chris has described all this much better than what I have here so I’m hoping you’ll spend time reading what he thinks these devices need.
Sometimes acknowledging a weakness is the first step to learning what to do differently. The trend I see coming is further device specialization and networking. By using the strength of the link, these devices act together through the computer hub. These devices can act as a single system from the glue that comes from the core computer device. As time goes by, the need for the computer hub to have more things will actually reduce. Features will get moved to what does them best.
I see it as the splitting of the workstation as we know it today. It no longer needs to live in one box. It’s not easy to see how this is completely practical but based on Chris’ vision, it is becoming clearer. As of this writing, Chris has around 3500 visits to his post. I am certain this is the highest any Citrix blog post has ever received. It speaks volumes to the interest in seeing this vision and making it real. Well done Chris!