Happy Birthday, Citrix — Now, Get Back to Work

Citrix is twenty-five this year. It’s done pretty well; not everyone can say that they created a market-defining end user computing platform that is used by every major organization in the world—and a few other places as well.

So Happy Birthday, guys, and please take the rest of the day off. Just make sure you’re in early tomorrow morning. 

With the launch of VMware View 6.0, Citrix’s core Windows application delivery business is under direct threat for the first time since February 1997, when Microsoft announced its willingness to go it alone and develop its own terminal services technology unless Citrix agreed to license its core technology to Microsoft and support a new joint development program. Citrix has long faced challengers, including direct competition from Microsoft, which has continued to improve its base Terminal Services and Remote Desktop Services offerings to take an increasing percentage of the lower end of the market from Citrix. However, a regular cadence of new product releases has until now ensured that Citrix has remained unassailable in large/complex environments.

Now, that has all changed. The introduction of View 6.0 alongside a rapidly maturing Horizon Suite means VMware is able to challenge Citrix on its own ground, not as a startup but as a mature enterprise software vendor that is, in many cases, more of a strategic partner than Citrix. VMware isn’t the only challenge that Citrix is facing. Dell has been actively pursuing Desktop as a Service for some time, and now Amazon has joined the fray.

It’s clear why Amazon and Dell have entered the market. For Amazon, DaaS delivers best performance when desktop and data are collocated, and Amazon already holds the high ground as far as data is concerned. Selling the performance and manageability benefits of Amazon Workspaces to existing AWS customers should not be difficult, and once Amazon owns the desktop, it opens the drop to even more AWS services.

Understanding Dell’s position as a DaaS provider is similarly clear-cut. Dell is still centered in the hardware business—perhaps no longer the best place to be, but it’s difficult to change history. With DaaS, Dell has the opportunity to stay in the hardware business in the data center, and the incentive to increase thin client sales on desktop. Giving customers more opportunity to buy thin clients to sit in front of a DaaS cloud is good business sense. More importantly, anything-as-a-Service is a service, and that means continual revenue and insulation from hardware-focused competitors.

Both Amazon and Dell claim to offer not a virtual desktop but a virtual “workspace.” This is something that I’ve been following closely for a couple of years. Put simply, a fully realized virtual workspace offers the ability to get the information you need in the most appropriate way, depending on current context, the capabilities of your device, your location, and your ability to act.

Yet, for today at least, these services are a long way short of that goal. Dell’s Workspace as a Service isn’t a workspace at all; instead, it’s a “…managed service offering intended to provide you with virtual desktops hosted from Dell data centers.” In other words, it’s DaaS.

The same goes for Amazon Workspaces: it’s DaaS—no more, no less.

Decoding possible workspace aspirations is harder. Amazon clearly understands the potential of a virtual workspace and has always done so. The ability to seamlessly deliver the most appropriate user experience regardless of the endpoint device is central to Amazon’s business model, whether that experience is shopping through its retail storefronts, reading on a Kindle e-book reader or any of the Kindle apps, or managing AWS services. If you compare what Amazon features, you’ll see that it has dropped in the transition from a full browser interface to an iPhone app, with the same transition for, say, LinkedIn or Facebook. It is clear that Amazon understands something that the others do not: that a change in form factor is not a justification to compromise user experience. What is not clear, however, is whether Amazon is going to take the workspace this far. If Amazon Workspaces is just a wedge to open the door to AWS even wider, there is only limited motivation to invest in the additional resources needed to deliver a more flexible, more comprehensive virtual workspace.

It would be reaching too far to attempt to interpret Dell’s position. Is there sufficient incentive for Dell to move beyond a basic DaaS offering and provide a richer virtual workspace? Probably, but as yet, Dell has offered no indication that it is willing to act.

Central to the development of a viable workspace is the ability to deliver apps, not desktops. This does not mean forgoing the desktop altogether—just ensuring that the absence of the desktop does not get in the way of business.

I find this lack of tangible effort puzzling. Mobile device user interfaces, Chromium, and the Windows 8 user experience (start button issues aside) are steering more people to understand that the desktop as a place to park applications is far less relevant than it was ten years ago. Cost, complexity, and Windows licensing inequality make a mockery of any belief that user needs can only truly be met by delivering desktops from the cloud.

In short, why is there so little effort, especially by Citrix, to develop a Windows Application as a Service platform for the cloud?

Given the size of the potential market, this appears to be a major omission by the incumbents. There are too many legacy software developers effectively shut out of mobile markets due to the challenges of translating their applications to new platforms, too many LinkedIns and Facebooks with rich web apps and mediocre mobile apps, not to consider this opportunity. Is this caution on Citrix’s behalf or unwillingness to sacrifice high-value XenApp sales in favor of a lightweight, low-cost Windows application hosting platform? Citrix certainly struggled to come to terms with the differentiation of approaches to VDI presented by its own in-house XenDesktop when compared with Kaviza VDI in a Box, eventually deciding that acquisition, rather than competition, was the best way to address the threat.

Where does this place cloud-optimised Windows Apps as a Service? It’s hard to say. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Citrix will make announcements at its annual Synergy conference in Anaheim next month. However, I’m not by any means convinced that it will.

One possible opportunity here lies with Toronto-based Sphere 3D and Glassware. I had the opportunity for a brief look at Glassware last week, and I hope to be able to return for a more detailed assessment in the near future. In many respects, Glassware is to XenApp as VDI in a Box is to XenDesktop: a fresh approach to virtual applications, built from the ground up with an emphasis on the hypervisor as a means of achieving virtualization, rather than as a platform on which to run multiple operating system instances.

Glassware’s promise is not just that it is a legacy-free interpretation of conventional terminal services technology, but that it can take this approach to deliver more than just Windows applications. Demonstrating seamless delivery of Windows x86 applications alongside Android and Fortran apps on iPad is going to take more than one brief introduction to come to grips with. Nevertheless, if execution is as effective as the promise, this could be a technology to keep a close eye on.