Citrix's Labana: Enterprise tablet apps a jump ball between Apple, Android (and yes Microsoft)

Citrix's Harry Labana has a notable view of mobile enterprise computing. Labana has been a Wall Street technology executive, is responsible for supporting multiple devices with the Citrix Receiver and has a ground-level view of mobile development and what it means to the enterprise.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Citrix's Harry Labana has a notable view of mobile enterprise computing. Labana has been a Wall Street technology executive, is responsible for supporting multiple devices with the Citrix Receiver and has a ground-level view of mobile development and what it means to the enterprise.

We caught up with Labana, chief technology officer of desktop and application virtualization at Citrix, to talk strategy, managing mobile devices in the enterprise, Microsoft's tablet prospects and cloud computing.

Here's the recap from our conversation earlier this week. On bring your own IT, Labana said the trend isn't going away, but also noted that Citrix isn't only promoting consumerization. "BYO isn't a religion and we're not only promoting it," said Labana. "The devices can be enterprise or consumer owned, but there will more of them."

What about the impact of consumerization on managing technology? The reality here is that there are costs to managing distributed devices, said Labana. "If it costs X to manage the PC and phone fleet it's going to cost even more to manage tablets," said Labana. "The greater number of devices there are the greater the risks." Before joining Citrix, Labana was a technology executive at Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms so he knows the perils of data leakage and risks to a company's reputation. The Holy Grail for IT is to manage a smaller, simpler device footprint, but with enough flexibility to keep users happy.

Are so-called thin clients the answer? Labana played down the role of the thin client. The reality is that some things will need to run locally. Labana prefers the idea of a slim client that can run some things locally, but is simple. In the enterprise, these slim clients are really lightweight PCs. "Companies aren't buying workstations and several hundred dollar PCs," he said. Some verticals like healthcare can use zero touch thin clients, but most will prefer slimmed down PCs. How's Microsoft's tablet strategy looking? Citrix is a long-time partner of Microsoft so Labana couldn't complain too much, but did acknowledge that the software giant has catching up to do. However, Labana noted that it isn't too late for Microsoft to be a tablet player. "The sweet spot for Microsoft is still the enterprise customer, who is broadly Windows based. That's not going to change," said Labana. What are the most mature platforms today? Given Citrix's move to put its Receiver software on multiple devices, Labana has a good view of the mobile platform landscape. "We have focused the Citrix Receiver to run on all devices, but it requires a lot of spending to make it run on every platform," he said. Labana breaks down the mobile platforms this way:

Apple's iOS is the most mature to develop for. Android is second and Citrix's Receiver was easy to port since it was built on Linux. The problem with Android is that it runs differently on each type of device---Dell Streak, Samsung's Tablet, Motorola, HTC etc.

Who wins in the enterprise? Labana says the customers and technology managers he talks to are split on Apple vs. Android. "To some of them, open and fragmented (Android) is a good thing. The IT buyer won't feel locked in," said Labana. "But all the users are buying iPads." He did note that enterprises are concerned about lock-in with Apple.

Where will the enterprise app focus go---smartphones or tablets? Labana said "the IT guys are not writing apps for smartphones. If they are going to invest in something they are going to write apps for tablets." Why? Form factor. The tablet is simply more useful for work tasks.

Can Microsoft leverage that enterprise focus on tablets? Enterprises could write for Windows in the future, he said. "Microsoft's support for the ARM processor could make it relevant in the tablet market," said Labana. "There are few enterprises writing native iOS and Android apps. To 'enterprise up' those apps you need more maturity. Microsoft is good at doing the boring stuff that enterprises like." So what could Microsoft do to court the enterprise tablet market? Labana said Microsoft could support integration with its infrastructure. For instance, if Microsoft integrated a tablet OS---Windows Phone 7, Windows 8, etc.---with Hyper V and System Center.

But Microsoft is going consumer first. Labana said the consumer first makes sense. If Microsoft can win consumers, it can more easily build in enterprise hooks elsewhere to court corporate buyers. "I wouldn't write off Windows tablets in the enterprise," said Labana. "The market is still nascent." That said, Microsoft has its challenges. "The users are buying Apple and IT likes Android because there is more control to write apps. Enterprises can write their own version of Android.

What do enterprise buyers want out of a tablet? Labana's short list looks like this:

  • The ability to manage the enterprise app life cycle.
  • Security.
  • Tablets can't be a burden on IT in terms of managing the fleet. "If you've ever had to manage a couple thousand laptops you know it's a pain," he said.
  • Another model. Labana said that service providers may be able to manage the tablet fleet for companies.
  • A focus on managing data risk. Instead of managing devices, companies will only focus on the corporate data that resides on them.

How's the cloud war shaping up? Labana argued that there is a full-blown cloud war on deck. On one side of the equation, tech vendors are trying to sell the cloud as a way to get IT buyers to buy a complete stack. "CIOs are asking 'do I want to give all my money to one vendor?'" said Labana. "A lot of buyers want leverage." He added that Microsoft's Hyper-V as well as virtualization from Oracle, Citrix and Red Hat are becoming more important as IT buyers worry about VMware lock-in. "Enterprises are going to write their own hypervisor or buy neutral management stacks. You wouldn't buy only from Dell or HP. Why would you do that with the hypervisor?" Labana said that VMware's vSphere will ultimately have to manage multiple hypervisors to be relevant." It should be noted that Citrix competes with VMWare. "IT buyers are going to look at how vendors are pushing vertical stacks and take the countertrend and go horizontal and open," said Labana.

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