Is your business ready for 'stick' PCs?

Aiming for a new kind of mobile computing.

Two recent announcements suggest that “stick” PCs may be gaining momentum:

  • A Google blog mentioned what will be called the Chromebit, an ASUS-built USB drive-style device “smaller than a candy bar” that acts as a full computer when it is plugged into a display. The device will be powered by a Rockchip quad-core processor with dual-band WiFi 802.11ac & BT4.0 support and will sell for less than $100.
  • News reports noted that the Ultra-Slim Compute Stick Intel announced at CES 2015 is available for preorder. The Compute Stick is Android-based but comes pre-loaded with either Windows 8.1 ($150) or Ubuntu Linux 14.04 ($110). Enabling Windows requires an activation fee.

Like the Chromebit, the Compute Stick is designed to work with a display, keyboard and mouse but it is also similar to Dell’s Wyse Cloud Connect (launched in January 2014). Both connect to displays via HDMI/MHL ports. Both contain a CPU, RAM and Flash storage capable of supporting essential computing/web tasks, as well as a Micro SD slot for adding storage capacity and a USB input. Both offer 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless. [Disclosure: Pund-IT has consulting relationships with both Dell and Intel.

Good enough, but the tech market is loaded with gizmos that violate a grandmotherly platitude that’s apropos for business: Just because you can do something (like eating an airplane), doesn’t mean that you should. So what’s the general value of stick PCs and why should they be potential business tools?

Measuring sticks

The pitch for stick PCs revolves around ultra-portability, minimal power/space needs and ease of use. The first point is critical for mobile workers, including sales and service reps who can use a stick to turn a display, mouse and keyboard into a PC for accessing a local networks or printers.

So far as minimal space/power consumption go, a stick can support common desktop/online functions for part-time workers and business kiosks. Special circumstances, like supporting digital signage or running presentations in meeting rooms are also options to consider.

Three on a stick

In the products noted above, the primary differences lie in hardware, OS, management and service options.

  1. Google’s Chromebit will, unsurprisingly, support Google’s Chrome OS, but that means it should also provide easy access to the company’s online apps and services, including Google Docs, Gmail and Google Cloud. Similar to its Chromebooks, Google is acting as the primary OS, solution, service, retail provider. It seems probable that the Chromebit will follow a design similar to the Intel and Dell solutions.
  2. Intel’s Compute Stick takes a page from its Next Unit of Computing (NUC) devices and strategy to inspire users and its OEM and developer partners. Supporting Windows and Linux follows Intel’s strategy of agnostic platform support, but the clear purpose here is to deliver a “full PC” experience. To achieve that, the device leverages a Quad-core 1.33GHz Intel Atom CPU, 2GB of RAM and 32GB of Flash storage. The price of the Windows version (excluding the activation fee) is higher than the Linux version, let alone the Chromebit. But that could be a minor issue for businesses firmly wedded to Microsoft or Ubuntu.
  3. The Dell Wyse Cloud Connect lags a bit in terms of hardware features compared to the Compute Stick. For $129.00 customers get a device with a dual-core Cortex-A9 ARM SoC, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of Flash storage (expandable to 72GB with a Micro SD card) running Android 4.1 Jellybean and Google Play apps. But that’s more than enough muscle to support Dell Wyse’s robust services and remote, virtualized and cloud client applications. For example, Wyse Cloud Connect can be used in Wyse PocketCloud, Citrix Receiver and VMware Horizon View remote desktop environments, and also supports Dell’s Sonic Wall VPN Client along with other enterprise security and enforcement solutions. Dell also partners with Nanonation and ScreenScape to leverage Cloud Connect for digital signage.

Final analysis

The appearance and success of any technology involves more than changes in form. In the case of stick PCs, the factors included the evolution of robust “fanless” CPUs, compact Flash storage, next generation wi-fi and Bluetooth technologies, ubiquitous wired and wireless networks, and individuals and businesses comfortable with and reliant on digital processes.

The solutions discussed here are as varied as the markets they aim to serve, though not all are ready for business primetime. The ability of Intel’s Compute Stick to support full featured Windows could make it attractive to many Microsoft-dependent companies but the Ubuntu version is likely to be popular among developers and other niche groups.

The low price of Google’s Chromebit should pique the interest of cash-conscious organizations and those already leveraging Chromebooks. That’s a relatively small audience from a business perspective but a question worth considering is whether Google will offer an SDK for the Chromebit, as it did for its Chromecast TV dongle. If so, the vistas for Chromebit could be wider.

Of the three, the Dell Wyse Cloud Connect is the most fully mature business solution across a variety of computing processes and use cases. In short, while the Compute Stick and Chromebit are initially notable due to the novelty of their form, Dell has a serious story to tell in terms of Wyse Cloud Connect’s general business value and functionality across numerous workplace scenarios.

That said, Dell, Intel and Google have all done admirable work in what remains an emerging sector. I expect these current offerings are just the first of what will eventually be many stick solutions populating the desktop PC market.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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