OnLive Brings Superfast Windows to the iPad

I just lost my last excuse for traveling with a laptop.

I usually find myself traveling with my MacBook Air because some tasks, such as writing this post at the Consumer Electronics Show, is just a bit more than I can manage on the iPad. But OnLive Desktop is about to change that–and could bring big changes to mobile computing for business.

OnLive Desktop screenshotOnLive is the company that did the seemingly impossible by creating a platform where high-performance games are run on its servers with just screen images transmitted to networked clients including computers, tablets, phones, and connected TVs. By running instances of Windows on a server instead of a game, OnLive has duplicated the trick for productivity software. It works a bit like Citrix’s server-based Windows, but with performance so good you think the software is running locally, and on a really fast machine at that. The key to the performance, says OnLive CEO Steve Perlman, is that it was “built against the discipline of instant-action gaming.”

The OnLive Desktop app will be available from the iTunes Store later today. A basic version, which includes Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel and 2 gigabytes of online storage, is free.

A $10 a month premium version, which will be of more interest to serious users when it becomes available, includes the full Office suite and 50 GB of storage. It also provides for persistent user preferences in Office, superfast server-based web browsing, and the ability of users to upload applications.

Adding your own applications would add dramatically to the usefulness of the services. However, Perlman was a bit vague on exactly how it would work, especially with applications such as Adobe Creative Suite, which have complicated licensing arrangements. Autodesk applications are likely to be available pre-installed on OnLive’s servers, since Autodesk is an investor in the company.

OnLive also plans to offer an enterprise version. This would allow companies to set up virtual Windows machines on OnLive servers using their own custom images, a service aimed at the heart of Citrix’s business.

When I first saw a demo of OnLive’s gaming service, I was deeply skeptical that it could work. Trying it when it first became available quickly made me a believer, and even though I have only seen the Desktop service in a demo, I have every reason to believe it will work as promised over any decent internet connection.

Actually using Office on an iPad is a bit clumsy for reasons that have more to do with Office than with either OnLine or the iPad. Office is notoriously unfriendly to touch, even when installed on a touchscreen PC or Windows slate.  When a keyboard is needed, the user has a choice between the Microsoft on-screen keyboard (the iPad keyboards lack keys that Windows needs for full functionality) or the standard office Text Input Panel, which can be used with any iPad-compatible pen. I think most users will be much happier with an external physical keyboard.

On the other hand, OnLive Desktop will let you display even the most complex PowerPoint slide show, including Flash video, without a hitch. (This works because the Flash is being executed on the server, with only the frames sent down to the notoriously Flash-less iPad.)

OnLive Desktop could really come into its own with Windows 8 and the expected, though as yet unannounced, touch friendly version of Office.



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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

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