Dell's Cloud Connect thin client provides business Android on a stick

Wyse Cloud Connect thin client deploys Android for enterprise, but real competition is tablets and smartphones, not PC-on-a-stick rivals

The term "thin client" usually brings to mind a screen and keyboard combination, or maybe a tablet or smartphone. Dell Wyse Cloud Connect takes the idea a few steps further. It's a $129 (retail), Android 4.1.2-powered device the size and shape of a USB stick that lets you turn any any MHL or HDMI-connected display into a thin client.

It also looks like one of the few positive examples of how to add management functionality to a business-grade Android device -- which has long been an issue for Android generally, solved through only a patchwork of manufacturer-specific solutions. But as a thin client, Cloud Connect might have trouble standing apart from commodity mobile hardware.

Originally known as "Project Ophelia," Cloud Connect doesn't limit the user to one kind of thin client connectivity, either. Clients can access systems via Citrix, Microsoft RDP, VMware thin clients, the Web itself, or through the wealth of apps available in the Android app store are built into the device.

What's striking about Cloud Connect isn't just that it's a portal on a stick. It's also an easy-to-manage business Android device on a stick thanks to Dell's Cloud Client Manager portal provided free with the device. Android device management in enterprises has been more or less left to the device maker (Samsung's Knox containerization technology) or abandoned to third parties (3LM). Cloud Client Manager doesn't change that picture for Android overall -- the client management software in question is an acquisition from Wyse, and Dell is likely to keep it close to its chest rather than make part of Android as a whole. At least here the management of the device is part of the package, not an afterthought.

The device itself is pretty straightforward technically. Power is supplied to the device via USB, and audio is piped out from the device's HDMI connection to whatever audio sources are available through the display. You'll have to supply your own Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, but there's 8GB of local storage, expandable to 40GB total, which makes it well-suited to both modest business use and even personal applications.

Gadgets in this vein have been surfacing for a while, although typically without the management tools or the business slant. FXI Tech's Cotton Candy, for instance, uses a quad-core ARM system-on-chip to run Android as both a local OS and as a thin client environment. But Cotton Candy required too much heavy lifting on the part of an administrator to be truly useful. It was closer to a hobbyist's solution, like the Raspberry Pi, than a full-fledged thin client ready for enterprise use.

Again, the main obstacle Dell may run into with this device is whether or not it's easier for enterprises to work with existing tablet and smartphone hardware than it is to use Cloud Connect. Granted, Cloud Connect has the advantage of being self-contained, but using an existing smartphone or tablet as a thin client seems like it'll be far more convenient than repurposing existing HDMI displays.

Whatever Dell's ambitions for Cloud Connect, it looks like other companies believe they can also find a market for such devices. Not long after Cloud Connect was announced, thin client outfit Devon IT announced its own $89 Ceptor, a conceptually similar device. It doesn't run Android -- instead, it uses its own Linux-derived ZetOS -- but it also sports a client management suite and uses a highly minimal, locked-down configuration to simplify device security.

The real competition for this space, then, isn't likely to be in terms of the hardware. Making a cheap and powerful Android system on a stick has been not only possible but easy for some time. What'll really set any one of these devices apart, then, is how well it can be managed -- and whether or not a discrete market can be found for it that isn't already covered well by existing mobile hardware.

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