One of the more interesting announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show this week was Dell's Project Ophelia, a key fob sized PC from the Wyse acquisition that should change both what thin clients are and where they will be used.
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However, Project Ophelia also showcased something Dell does better than anyone else at the moment: acquisitions.
Nondisruptive Acquisitions: Wyse Succeeds, Palm Fails
The worst acquisition of the last decade had to be Hewlett-Packard's acquisition of Palm. After a $1.2 billion purchase of what was at time one of the few companies capable of challenging Apple—that is, with the potential to become a $200 billion company—HP did what Apple couldn't do and destroyed Palm.
HP accomplished this destruction through the common acquisition practice of merging two companies and taking an asset that could have been worth billions and turning it into a liability. This process is commonly accepted process and, even after years of folks pointing out that this process has an failure rate approaching 90 percent, it's still common. Commentary: How Dell and HP Can Avoid Being Dragged Down by PCs
Analysis: Dell Lays Out Software Strategy
In contrast, when Dell bought Wyse a few months ago, it had no impact on Wyse's ability to introduce new products. In fact, Wyse has been enhanced through access to Dell's logistics and sales channels. In short, a company that cost far less than Palm and had far less ultimate potential is worth more today than Palm because HP and Dell use very different acquisition processes.
Any executive who doesn't study Dell, and instead uses the more common, far less successful acquisition strategy, shouldn't be an executive. (Consistent with this conclusion is the fact that the Palm acquisition, in part, cost former HP CEO Mark Hurd his job.)
A theory called confirmation bias argues that people really see only things that agree with the positions they have already taken. This helps explain why more companies aren't emulating Dell. Given how many jobs and careers are at risk, I hope executives will begin to change their ways this year.
Project Ophelia: An Enterprise Pocket PC for the 2010s
Dell's Project Ophelia is an aggressive client technology for this decade. It isn't really a thin client, though. It's a full Android device able to run the full suite of Android applications. With the right screen host, it can be used offline as well as online.
Think of Ophelia as an iPod Touch with no screen or battery but with an HDMI plug, which means it can be powered from the socket. (It has only a 2 Watt power requirement). Ophelia can then be used to plug into a cloud service that supplies the applications, communications and management that any device would need to function. It has Bluetooth support for keyboards and mice, too. Since it's an Android device, it will support touch, which suggests that it could be used to provide a cloud-hosted, low cost solution for the Lenovo table-top PC form factor also launched at CES. This could be ideal for collaboration projects.
This product is initially targeted at, and will do best in, emerging markets that need low-cost PC solutions that can be provided by local carriers to small and medium-sized businesses and consumers. Enhance Ophelia with Dell's security and management properties, though, and the company has a unique client that's enterprise ready—provided Dell can overcome some of Android's inherent security problems. This last point suggests that there's a slight possibility we'll see a Windows RT version of Ophelia in the not-too-distant future.
This could be the future of PCs. Project Ophelia could be plugged into a tablet or laptop carrier, and it's designed to plug into a current generation HDMI monitor. It could very well replace tablets, laptops and desktop PCs as we know them.
Whether Dell (or someone else) will take that step is unknown. The irony is that the result would be a modular PC, which IBM tried to create in the late 1990s but never brought to market because of its financial difficulties. (Big Blue did bring Simon, the first smartphone, to market in this era, too, but that effort fell flat as well.)
With Project Ophelia, Dell Reinvents Pocket PC
Pocket PC, modular PC and thin client are all largely obsolete terms connected mentally to long-gone or failed initiatives. In many ways, though, this was because the market and technology just weren't ready.
Ophelia, far from being a thin client, is more of a "cloud client," representing thinking that blends a smartphone, new streaming servers such as the NVidia Grid and the power of cloud computing into something very different.
Dell may have announced something powerful and disruptive with Project Ophelia, but even more powerful and disruptive was the fact that the Wyse division that launched it has turned out more powerful than the bigger, more valuable Palm, thanks to Dell's approach to acquisition.
Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.