Mobile Virtual Desktops, Motorola Announce a Nirvana Phone

Early last week Darron Antill, COO at AppSense, predicted that 2011 will be a huge year for mobility, citing that by 2013 mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common web access device worldwide. Before that week was out, Motorola announced the introduction of its hyperphone; the Motorola ATRIX 4G. As you look up from your iPads, Playbooks and Slates “oh my” you may well ask, “is this important?”

It is important because Motorola’s ATRIX 4G will not only be perhaps the fastest smartphone or indeed, hyperphone, on the market, but it will arguably be the first device to truly deliver on the Nirvana Phone concept: a smartphone capable of being a practical laptop/desktop alternative. You may consider this has already been done: delivering a virtual desktop to a smartphone is possible, but it is rarely usable.

What is a Nirvana Phone, what has Motorola done with the ATRIX 4G that is more than, say Apple with its iPhone and how could you utilise such a device in your IT strategy to be an effective tool for your business?

What is a Nirvana Phone?

Citrix mooted the concept Nirvana Phone way back in 2008. The Nirvana Phone was intended to enable a user to use their small form factor device when on the move or in the office to access business applications and data by accessing a virtual desktop.

This is 2011, and while we may not have rocket cars, at least smartphones are capable of accessing remote desktops. Towards the end of 2010, Quest announced iPhone clients for vWorkspace with an Android client beta program coming early 2011. A number of vendors, including Wyse, offer a RDP client that run on Apple’s iPhone or on Android devices. Citrix have a reputation for enabling access to their desktop and application virtualisation solutions using a wide variety of devices with their Client Receiver being available for iPhones, devices running Android and some Blackberry devices amongst others.

Why would having a Nirvana Phone be useful?

Of course, the Nirvana Phone relies on the availability of virtualised desktop environment. Naturally, there is a benefit to Citrix in promoting such a device – which ultimately relies on you investing in their XenApp and XenDesktop products. The Nirvana Phone reference architecture does include a requirement for a ‘Citrix Receiver’,  essentially Citrix’s connection client. The reference architecture also specifies a hypervisor: this would not only allow you to provide a more secure environment to run your session, but it would also reduce the platforms Citrix would need to support. Win-win.

That said enabling a smart phone to be a secure and effective user device would help you to deliver mobility and flexibility, as well as assisting in cost control.

  • Mobility and Flexibility – Many users want to travel lighter and have the flexibility to simply leave their laptop at home. It’s their personal choice if and when to use a “Nirvana Phone”. For example:
    • A mobile employee can connect their NP in Internet cafes, in the airport, or the flat screen TV in their hotel room to get a full desktop-use environment.
    • Such a device facilities a “Bring their Own Device” (BYOD) policy. A users own “nirvana phone” could be used safely and securely on a public network: while from a corporate standpoint, no data needs to be hosted on the device itself.
  • Cost Control – Enhance the ROI in the “Nirvana Phones” and your virtualised desktop environment by using them to replace laptops or desktop systems, eliminating the maintenance associated with those laptops and desktops. For example:
    • The cost of purchasing and supporting a full laptop for some employees may be considered too high. By adopting a policy of only supplying a “nirvana phone” you can remove the need to supply laptop for defined job roles.
    • Eliminating laptops equipped with aircards for service vans, or emergency vehicles, or delivery trucks and replace them with “nirvana phones” that connect to a simple LCD screen and a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to leverage the data network already paid for on the smart phones, lowering their Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).
    • Set up “nirvana phone” capable office hoteling, allowing users to connect their Nirvana Phone to peripherals (monitor, keyboard and mouse) in any available environment and still get an office desktop-like experience. Reducing physical office space can be a huge cost saving for a business. You can’t make people smaller – but you can give them smarter options for working out of the office, smarter options for reducing their desk space needs.

Surely, I can use my Smartphone now?

The user experience of “desktop access” using existing smartphones is not endearing. If you consider a desktop it is a base unit, a screen and a keyboard/mouse. To date, smart-phones have lacked all or a combination of things:

  • Video-out – Some smartphones have video-out, but the resolution is limited. Both PDA’s ( HP’s iPAQ or Dell’s Axim) and Tablets (Apple’s iPad, RIM’s Playbook) have better screens and resolution with video-out, but they are not phones and/or they are too big. The resolution needs to be capable of 1024 x 768 to satisfy most users.
  • Keyboard & Mouse – The smartphone user input options continue to improve, however to work effectively (and avoid high turnover of devices due to them being thrown against a wall in frustration)  a full keyboard and mouse will continue to be a requirement when stationary. Many smartphones today do have Bluetooth. Portable keyboards have made this realistic but not all smartphones have mouse support: the iPhone 4 for instance does not currently (natively) support a mouse.
  • Docking Station – This scenario works best if there is also a docking station that recharges the phone at the same time as providing a video interface and USB hub. A ” Nirvana Phone” ideally would provide USB host functionally rather than a USB slave function that many devices have today. Additional functionality for the docking station would include VGA/USB pass-through – so the docking station can plug into a home PC and use the same monitor and peripherals, as well as audio in/out for headsets. This docking station would also need to come in a portable format as well as stationary. Celio Corp do provide their Redfly device for connecting to Blackberry and Windows Mobile devices, but the Redfly device’s display resolution is limited to 800×600. Isn’t that another device? It is, but the focus here is that the docking device is a dumb thing – it has no inherent storage, it has nothing to lose or to manage. It is a means of charging the phone – you can’t leave data on it, it does not itself need to be managed, secured and maintained.

You can use a smartphone now, but it a poor experience. Motorola have resolved these issues with the ATRIX.

And don’t call me Shirley.

Is the ATRIX a Nirvana Phone?

Is it small enough to be a phone? Does it have an appropriate video-out capability? Can you use a keyboard and mouse? Does it have a docking station?

In size, the Motorola ATRIX 4G is almost exactly the same dimensions as an iPhone 4, yet it is lighter. Despite the small proportions it sports a dual core processor, with two 1GHz cores and 1GB of RAM running Android 2.2 and somehow packs a 1930mAH battery in too. Size…check.

The phone has its own on-board Bluetooth and mini-HDMI connector, delivering video at 1280 x 1024 resolution.  The ATRIX 4g has a feature called Webtop. WebTop transforms the high-end smartphone into a Nirvana Phone when an HDMI cable is plugged in. At this point, WebTop displays the video output at resolutions up to 1280×1024 on a standard PC display or TV.  Video out, keyboard and mouse…check.

Motorola has developed two optional docking options for the ATRIX. The Motorola Laptop Dock is an ultra slim laptop with keyboard, 11.6-inch display and battery in a lightweight ( 2.4 lbs) package that is only 13.9 mm thick – slimmer than the svelte 17mm Apple’s MacBook Air. The Laptop Dock battery can give up to 8 hours of continuous use and can also recharge the phone’s internal cells for good measure (which will of course reduces the use time.. its good but it’s not magic). There is also a “multimedia dock” which is a much simpler affair, providing three USB ports to connect a wired mouse and keyboard or USB drives and a standard HDMI video-out.  Docking Station…check.

Chris Fleck, Citrix’s Vice President of Community and Solutions Development, states that there are a few remaining limitations, (for example there is no hypervisor, US users may not balk at the device only being available on AT&T and European users have to twiddle their thumbs for a while before it’s here) but that there is “nothing to keep this set-up from making any road warrior or knowledge worker more mobile and productive immediately”.

eBay to be flooded with iPads?

Is it better than an iPad? There is a fair amount of conversation around utilising tablets as an alternative device: “they’re great for reading documents and giving presentations”. That they are, but often you need to do more than read documents and do presentations.

If by 2013 mobile phones are indeed to overtake PCs as web access devices, Motorola have delivered a device in the ATRIX 4g that gives form to a set of tools that could be readily utilised to allow users carry the device that enables them to work effectively wherever they are at a customer site, in a hotel, at the airport, or even in the office. Combined with an infrastructure that supports virtual desktops a Nirvana Phone device can be utilised not only by senior executives, but by a wide variety of user groups.

Citrix is at the forefront of ensuring its customers can deliver applications and desktops to a wide variety of devices. In doing so, Citrix helps those customers reduce the time to get a return on their investment. What will be interesting is to see how other desktop virtualisation vendors will respond. For such mobile access – especially over public networks – the remote user experience over a high latency network is a key consideration. Citrix’s ICA protocol is being challenged by the likes of EOP Xtreme (from Quest) and Blaze (from Ericom). Like ICA, these protocols also require a client to be installed on the device. Citrix have come up trumps with their Receiver being pre-installed in the ATRIX 4G- so the likely goal is for other vendors to ensure that they have an Android client as quickly as possible. On the device side, Motorola have chosen Android as their OS of choice – it will be interesting to see how both Apple and RIM respond.

Simply moving your desktops from being physical devices to virtual devices is rarely a cost saving exercise.  However, moving your desktops from being physical devices to virtual devices allows you to offer new services, treat IT delivery in a different way to help your business be more efficient. With a device like the Nirvana Phone accessing a virtual desktop or application delivery environment you could deliver wealth of new options to reduce costs and increase flexibility and mobility.