The Business Case for “Stick” Computing

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  April 8, 2015

Recent announcements suggest that “stick” computing may finally be gaining broader momentum:

  • Google and ASUS announced what will be called the Chromebit, a USB drive-style device described as a full computer “smaller than a candy bar… that will be available for less than $100. By simply plugging this device into any display, you can turn it into a computer.” Availability is targeted for this summer.
  • Meanwhile, reports noted that the Intel Ultra-Slim Compute Stick announced in January at CES 2015 is available for order at Newegg and other online sources with either Windows 8.1 (for $150) or Ubuntu Linux 14.04 (for $110) preloaded. The Stick is Android-based and enabling Windows requires an activation fee.

The Intel Compute Stick is somewhat similar in form and features to Dell’s Wyse Cloud Connect, which was launched in January 2014. Both connect to displays via HDMI/HML ports and offer mini-USB ports for external power sources. Both contain a CPU, RAM and Flash storage capable of supporting essential computing tasks, as well as a Micro SD slot for adding storage capacity. Both include 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 for wireless connectivity, as well as a USB 2.0 input for connecting other devices.

All this sounds interesting enough, but the tech industry is full of gizmos that violate a grandmotherly platitude that’s especially apropos for business: Just because you can do something (like eating an airplane), doesn’t mean that you should. So let’s consider stick computing generally, then revisit each of these devices as potential business tools.

Measuring sticks

The usual pitch for stick computing revolves around ultra-portability and ease of use. The former issue comes into play for mobile workers, including sales and service reps who could use a stick and available display to create a usable desktop and access a local a network or printer.

But sticks can also be valuable in circumstances where size or low power consumption matter. For example, a stick and a large flat panel display/TV could support group presentations. Similarly, sticks can power common desktop and web functions for use cases like knowledge worker applications and processes, educational labs and service/support centers.

In the case of the three products noted above, the real differences lie in OS, management and service options.

  1. Google’s Chromebit, unsurprisingly, supports Chrome OS, but that means it also provides easy access to a host of Google apps and services, including Google Docs, Gmail and Google Cloud. In fact, that’s the key issue here – that similar to its Chromebook solutions, Google is acting as the OS, solution and service provider, leaving OEM partners mainly responsible for manufacturing and adjunct value-added services. In the case of Asus, the focus is on delivering a stick at a far lower price point than competitors, which could make the Chromebit attractive to cost-conscious businesses and VARs looking for new opportunities. Product details are few at this point in time, but it seems probable that the Chromebit will follow a form/function path similar to the Intel and Dell solutions.
  2. Intel’s Compute Stick travels a path that will mainly be of interest to businesses using either Windows or Linux as a desktop OS. As such, it follows Intel’s longtime strategy of agnostic software support and should also help cultivate stick computing among the company’s OEM customers. But the clear purpose here is to deliver a traditional “full PC” experience in a highly compact form factor which is why 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 if your business is firmly wedded to Microsoft’s or Ubuntu’s  desktop applications and ecosystems, Intel’s Compute Stick could be just what you’re looking for.
  3. While the Dell Wyse Cloud Connect may seem to lag a bit in terms of hardware features, it supports the robust process and service functions necessary to support remote/cloud client computing. For $129.00, customers get a device with a Dual-core Cortex-A9 ARM SoC CPU, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of onboard Flash storage that runs Android 4.1 Jellybean and Google Play apps. A Micro SD slot can be used to expand storage to 72GB. On the software side, 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 a full range of the company’s enterprise security and enforcement solutions. Dell also partners with Nanonation and ScreenScape to leverage Cloud Connect in digital signage applications. In short, while some stick devices are mainly notable due to the novelty of the form, Dell has a serious story to tell in terms of Wyse Cloud Connect’s business value and functionality.

Final analysis

The rise of any new computing device involves far more than simple changes in form. In the case of stick computing, the factors included the evolution of robust “fanless” CPUs, compact new Flash storage technologies, next generation wi-fi and Bluetooth solutions, ubiquitous wired and wireless networks, and individuals and businesses becoming increasingly comfortable with and reliant upon digital processes.

The stick solutions arising from these factors are as varied as the markets they aim to serve, though some are more ready for business primetime than others. Overall, the Dell Wyse Cloud Connect is a fully mature solution that can securely support a broad variety of business processes and use cases.

That said, the ability of Intel’s Compute Stick to support full blown Windows and Ubuntu Linux implementations could make it attractive in companies devoted to those desktop environments. Finally, the low price of Google’s Chromebit should pique the interest of cash-conscious organizations and those already leveraging Chromebook solutions.

In essence, Dell, Intel, Google and Asus have 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 computing solutions populating the market.

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