A new category has emerged this summer: the dongle device. Following on the heels of Google's recent release of its $35 Chromecast dongle that allows a TV set to display streaming content from the Net, Dell has started to ship to developers a beta version of its Project Ophelia dongle, which turns a TV set into a cloud-based computer.
The $100 Project Ophelia "computer on a stick" device was first unveiled by Dell at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in January, and it was positioned as a way for a business traveler to turn a hotel TV into a Chromebook-like computer. The size of a USB drive, Ophelia plugs into the HDMI port of a TV or monitor and can connect to a remote desktop via Citrix, Microsoft, or VMware remote desktop systems. Users can also add a Bluetooth-enabled keyboard or mouse.
The current version utilizes the Android 4.0 operating system, can run Android-based apps and browsers, is powered by the TV or monitor, and has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities. Users can download apps from the Google Play store, or stream movies from such sources as Hulu. The device had been expected to be available in the first half of this year, but is just now being released for developers. By the end of the summer, Ophelia will be offered for bundling by cable companies, with a general market release via Dell's Web site to follow.
Entirely New Class?
Other dongle-like computing devices exist on the market, but Ophelia also supports Dell's Wyse cloud computing technology for utilizing remote desktops, applications, files and virtual machines. Like Google's Chromecast dongle, Ophelia could also point the way to an entirely new class of tiny devices that add major functionality to existing large displays such as TVs and monitors.
Although this first incarnation of Ophelia runs Android, it was originally designed to run other major operating systems as well, including Chrome, Windows and even Mac OS X. At the moment, however, there's no word from Dell if those other OS's will be available in this product. Ophelia ships with Wyse's PocketCloud for accessing remote files, and the beta release to developers is intended to encourage the creation of Ophelia-specific apps.
Ophelia also includes functionalities designed to appeal to IT administrators, such as remote wiping or the ability to track what users are doing with the device.
Avi Greengart, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, told us that "dongles have never sold well in the past," although he noted that Google's Chromecast is a "different animal because the price is so radically low." There is also the factor, he said, that Chromecast "does one thing particularly well that users had difficulty doing well before -- getting YouTube on your TV."
In the case of the Ophelia dongle, however, Greengart said the value proposition is murkier because the use cases are less clear. If you wanted to simply stream Netflix to TV, he said, there are cheaper devices like Roku and, now, Chromecast. And if you wanted to use the dongle as an easy-to-carry thin client computer, you still need to add a keyboard and mouse, thus approaching the cost of a lower-end Chromebook computer, which Ophelia functionally resembles.
Greengart said the clearest use case is an IT employee who wants to be able to carry a small device from user station to station for testing, app or file installation, or other purposes.