Citrix Workspace Hub

Citrix is back in hardware mode. Risking the wrath of the demo gods, Citrix CEO Mark Templeton and head of emerging technologies Chris Fleck took to the stage at Citrix Synergy last month to show off their latest toy—the Citrix Workspace Hub. This potentially game-changing new product does for the real world what until now only Tony Stark could do for the Marvel Universe.

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Citrix – Back in Hardware Mode

Remember that scene in Iron Man 2, the one at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where Tony Stark whips out a cool see-through smartphone, hacks into the room’s digital display screen, and wirelessly streams his own video? This one:

Well, now Citrix can do that too, with the Workspace Hub, which makes remote display sharing as simple as finding your evening’s entertainment on Tinder. Just watch this:

Chris must have done something to displease the gods, because it wasn’t the smoothest demo of the day, with the display acting up a few times, but it got the point across. The basic idea is very simple: the number of devices that we use throughout a working day has increased dramatically over the last few years. Smartphone in the morning, PC at the desk, tablet in the conference room, back to the PC, back to the smartphone on the subway home, tablet again in the evening while sitting on the sofa. Instead of logging onto each device in turn, launching a new session, or connecting back to a session started earlier in the day, you can change all that with the Workspace Hub. It allows you to carry your remote display session around on the Citrix Receiver on your smartphone or tablet all day long. Then, whenever you need to access it on a large display, you simply walk up to any Workspace Hub–enabled display, swipe up with two fingers, and the display is now your endpoint. (Got to change that swipe up thing, Citrix—it needs to swipe right if you want to keep up with the times.) The transfer takes only a couple of seconds, with no logon or reauthentication: it’s completely frictionless. Swipe down again or just walk away, and the display shifts back to your phone. The Workspace Hub transforms the smartphone/tablet from a self-contained client device into a portable desktop container. It is in many respects the Nirvana Phone grown up.

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Innovation on a Stick

Beyond stealing ideas from Iron Man (OK, I’m almost certain Stark Industries was not the source of inspiration for Workspace Hub, but I’m pretty sure the NDA I signed covers who first thought of this idea, so I’m keeping quiet), Citrix has reappropriated a lot of ideas from the high-tech toolbox to create its new toy. The basic technology is in many respects similar to the Wireless Display (WiDi) standard developed by Intel, which can be used to stream music and video wirelessly from a compatible computer to an HDTV or monitor. However, where WiDi simply replaces the physical HDMI cable with a point-to-point wireless connection, Workspace Hub takes things substantially further. The device itself contains an ARM processor with a full Android implementation managed by Citrix XenMobile. The primary Workspace Hub software is the “Citrix Receiver Extender.” This works in conjunction with a modified version of the normal Receiver to reroute the HDX video stream from the user’s phone/tablet to the Workspace Hub. As it uses a full version of Android, Workspace Hub isn’t restricted to just acting as a remote display device. It also can be used to run Android apps and so could enable the Workspace Hub to function as a low-power computing device in its own right when not being used to proxy a remote display. Citrix did not demonstrate this in operation, but it could conceivably function as a low-power thin client, web browser, or yes, even run the Tinder app.

The Workspace Hub mirrors the HDMI stick form factor used by Google Chromecast and the Amazon Fire TV Stick. There’s a VGA connector on one end and a gender-changing HDMI connector on the other to provide support for legacy and current-generation displays, along with a micro–USB connector for power. Inside, there are dual Bluetooth low energy chips: one for peripherals and one for an iBeacon. It also has dual Wi-Fi chips with support for Wi-Fi Direct so that connections can be made without touching a corporate or public Wi-Fi network. The Workspace Hub supports NFC to provide simple touch pairing of supported devices and uses an iBeacon to provide proximity detection to simplify detection and automate connection and disconnection. Citrix has even found room to shoehorn in a rechargeable battery that provides up to three hours of operation in the event that there is no compatible HDMI or USB-based power source available. Where the normal Citrix Receiver uses local peripherals (mouse, keyboard, touch display, etc.), the Workspace Hub–ready Receiver can use peripherals attached to the Hub itself. So, for example, if there is a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse paired to the Hub, the receiver running on the iPhone will use them, even though the iPhone itself has not been paired to them.

While this new technology is undeniably cool, it needs to have utility beyond giving Chris Fleck the opportunity to show off during the keynote. Fortunately, it is overflowing with utility. Professions like healthcare that involve many short-duration interactions with devices in different locations, swapping from bedside to exam room, to office, to treatment room dozens of times each day, would benefit immensely from this technology, and not just in terms of ease of use. This could probably save sufficient time for a doctor in primary care to see one or possibly even two additional patients per day. Assuming that it could be sold for under $200 each, it would pay for itself within—what? a day, two at the most.

Right now, the Workspace Hub is only at the prototype stage, but Citrix has given strong hints that it is likely to follow the X1 Mouse into production at some point in the future. Citrix should not stop at the Workspace Hub. The concept should be extended across all Citrix Receiver endpoints, and more importantly, Citrix should do all it can to encourage thin client and display vendors to incorporate the technology into other devices. Imagine Microsoft incorporating Workspace Hub into its 84-inch Surface Hub display. The only real weak link in the Workspace Hub is the bane of all smartphone users: battery life. There aren’t that many phones that could run the Receiver all day without a break. Now, if Citrix could get vendors to incorporate wireless charging pads into their new Workspace Hub–enabled thin clients, it would solve everything. Unless, of course, you have an iPhone.

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