2015 and the Next Enterprise Software-Hardware Client

Thursday Jan 27th 2011 by Rob Enderle
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What combination of device and operating system will emerge victorious from the current crowded field?

This last week I was at Intel’s sales conference with Frank Gillett of Forrester and Bob O’Donnell from IDC. The topic was the enterprise client in 2015. While we didn’t agree on everything, we did agree on a few things in terms of trends.

One big one is that Google’s Chrome OS is premature and likely to fail outside of a small segment of the market that can live with thin client products. In that small niche it could carve out a small base but it simply can’t get to predominance by 2015, and it appears Google is already falling back on Android as a better horse for them to ride.

This week I’d like to share our thoughts on the client in 2015.

Why Chrome OS Won’t Make It: Two Words, “Thin Client"

The problem with Chrome OS is that it is a revision on the old concept of “Thin Client.” Bob O’Donnell and I have covered Thin Clients for what seems like decades and, to quote him, “The year for Thin Clients has always been next year."

This is because they simply can’t get the price/performance they need consistently to work outside of very distinct markets. Consequently they represent less than 1% of the current personal computer market. The irony, according to Bob, is that about 90% of thin client devices are actually PCs so the concept that was initially designed to replace both the hardware and software only replaced the software. This was showcased in the ChromeOS-based test machines Google sent out; they were basically nice little laptops.

The problem is that networks just aren’t reliable or reliably fast enough to support a pervasive product that is dependent on the web yet. You can do it with wired devices, and gaming services like On-Live are showcasing this in some areas. But even when wired, there often is too much latency or too little sustained bandwidth to provide for the vast majority of folks.

Given we started on the hunt for this concept in the late 90s and have advanced since that time we are getting closer. But consensus was, we won’t be there by 2015 and best guess now is sometime between 2020 and 2025 in the US, depending on how much Internet infrastructure is built out by them.

Areas like South Korea and Singapore, where infrastructure is vastly stronger, could be early adopter exceptions, however, and will likely be the canaries in this coalmine regardless.

So that’s what it won’t be. What will it be?

What Will: There Can’t be Only One

Sorry for messing with a famous line from the sci-fi movie Highlander , but the technology market goes from specialization to generalization and back again on cycles.

We started with word processors, data repositories (early mainframes), and calculators which all got wrapped into the PC. We then had cell phones, PDAs, hand held game machines, MIDs, portable media centers, and MP3 players, which got wrapped up into Smartphones.

Currently we are on a multi-device track but what makes this cycle a bit more sustaining is that each device is already the consolidation of others. The next consolidation will need to pull together Tablets, PCs, and Smartphones. And while Tablets and PCs could converge we are still likely at least a decade away from the technology that would allow us to physically scale down and up a device from the Smartphone, given that we seem to have a 5-inch max limit on screen size for devices like this at the moment.

This means there won’t be one client in 2015 but at least two and probably more than three. Currently there are four clients active in the technology and consumer electronics markets. They include Tablets, PCs, Smartphones, and SmartTVs. Coming are Smartbooks, which are kind of a blend of tablets and PCs. And several vendors have been playing around – with little success – with large Smartphones that have tablet attributes.

Blend of Consumer and Corporate

What we also all agreed on was that by 2015 there would be an even broader blend of consumer and corporate-oriented devices, and that employees will increasingly want access to corporate resources with both.

We were all citing instances of companies getting rid of laptops to replace them with blends of iPads and desktop computers already. And we also had stories of mass infusions of iPhones and Macs in enterprise accounts.

All of these products are largely positioned at the consumer market now, though Apple clearly has increased its focus on corporate sales and apps – all their platforms are becoming more and more focused on business. Android is moving in much the same way and this will likely be followed by SmartTVs, which employees may increasingly use both inside and outside the company for a variety of tasks. And it clearly won’t stop there.

This suggests that environments using some type of Network Access Protocol – where every device is initially untrusted until it is checked and authorized for access – may be the best path toward preparing for this diverse future.

In short, security is the core problem that will need to be addressed, which goes a long way to explaining why Intel bought McAfee a few months ago.

Wrapping Up: Winners and Losers

The vendors who will likely win in the 2015 world of massive diversity will be those that offer solutions that provide the user with the seamless multi-device experience they want, and are able to bridge at least two of the devices to bring the count of devices carried down to two.

No one wants to carry three devices if they can avoid it and users want their stuff, and state, on the device they are currently using. Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm, and most recently NVIDIA all have some level of this solution in the works.

The question is: who will provide the most comprehensive and compelling solution, who will market it the best, and who will have the best value for the dollar?

Those that are at the top of most of these metrics should flourish, those that aren’t won’t. And it may be wise to push your employees toward vendors who get this early so you don’t share their pain for making wrong purchase decisions. It’s a little too early to do that last right now, but we’ll help as the vendors’ strategies become better defined.

Interestingly enough, this year, Apple might actually be one of the more strategic bets. By the end of the year I expect that list to include more traditional vendors like HP and Dell as well as some surprise newcomers. Motorola’s Atrix has many of us intrigued (it’s the first attempt to blend all three products into one). And don’t forget, Microsoft clearly isn’t out of this yet and Windows 8 could drive the company back to center stage before this is resolved.

In the end, tech in 2015 will be defined not by one client but by a diverse number of them. Companies will need to anticipate that diversity, the security risks they represent, and make sure they aren’t buried by the resulting problem. That would be a strategy worth taking to heart. Like any wave, you can choose to ride it or be buried by it. Trust me, as a technology surfer, riding it is far more fun.

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