|Windows on the iPad, and Speedy|
By DAVID POGUEPublished: February 22, 2012
It’s a tiny app — about 5 megabytes. When you open it, you see a standard Windows 7 desktop, right there on your iPad. The full, latest versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Internet Explorer and Adobe Reader are set up and ready to use — no installation, no serial numbers, no pop-up balloons nagging you to update this or that. It may be the least annoying version of Windows you’ve ever used.
That’s pretty impressive — but not as impressive as what’s going on behind the scenes. The PC that’s driving your iPad Windows experience is, in fact, a “farm” of computers at one of three data centers thousands of miles away. Every time you tap the screen, scroll a list or type on the on-screen keyboard, you’re sending signals to those distant computers. The screen image is blasted back to your iPad with astonishingly little lag.
There’s an insane amount of technology behind this stunt — 10 years in the making, according to the company’s founder. (He’s a veteran of Apple’s original QuickTime team and Microsoft’s WebTV and Xbox teams.) OnLive Desktop builds on the company’s original business, a service that lets gamers play high-horsepower video games on Macs or low-powered Windows computers like netbooks.
The free version of the OnLive Desktop service arrived in January. It gives you Word, Excel and PowerPoint, a few basic Windows apps (like Paint, Media Player, Notepad and Calculator), and 2 gigabytes of storage.
Plenty of apps give you stripped-down versions of Office on the iPad. But OnLive Desktop gives you the complete Windows Office suite. In Word, you can do fancy stuff like tracking changes and high-end typography. In PowerPoint, you can make slide shows that the iPad projects with all of the cross fades, zooms and animations intact.
Thanks to Microsoft’s own Touch Pack add-on, all of this works with touch-screen gestures. You can pinch and spread two fingers to zoom in and out of your Office documents. You can use Windows’ impressive handwriting recognition to enter text (although a Bluetooth keyboard works better). You can flick to scroll through a list.
Instead of clicking the mouse on things, you can simply tap, although a stylus works better than a fingertip; many of the Windows controls are too tiny for a finger to tap precisely. (On a real Windows PC, you could open the Control Panel to enlarge the controls for touch use — but OnLive’s simulated PC is lacking the Control Panel, which is one of its few downsides.)
OnLive Desktop is seamless and fairly amazing. And fast; on what other PC does Word open in one second?
But the only way to get files onto and off OnLive Desktop is using a Documents folder on the desktop. To access it, you have to visit OnLive’s Web site on your actual PC.
The news today is the new service, called OnLive Desktop Plus. It’s not free — it costs $5 a month — but it adds Adobe Reader, Internet Explorer and a 1-gigabit-a-second Internet connection.
That’s not a typo. And “1-gigabit Internet” means the fastest connection you’ve ever used in your life — on your iPad. It means speeds 500 or 1,000 times as fast as what you probably get at home. It means downloading a 20-megabyte file before your finger lifts from the glass.
You get the same speed in both directions. You can upload a 30-megabyte file in one second.
And remember, you’re using a state-of-the-art Windows computer, so you can play any kind of video you might encounter online. OnLive Desktop Plus turns the iPad into a tablet that can’t play Flash videos at all — into the smoothest Flash player you’ve ever used. And yes, that includes watching free TV at Hulu.com, which you can’t otherwise do on the iPad.
The Plus version’s Internet connection makes a world of difference. Now you can use DropBox to get files onto and off your iPad from other gadgets, like Macs and PCs. (That, the company says, is why the Plus service still offers only 2 gigabytes of storage for your files; it figures you’ve now got the whole Internet as your storage bin.) You can get to your Gmail, Yahoo mail, corporate Exchange mail and other online accounts — with ridiculously quick response.
Now, you might be wondering: What good is a 1-gigabit connection on OnLive’s end, if the far slower connection on my end is the bottleneck?
The secret is that OnLive isn’t sending you all of the data from your Web browsing session. It’s sending you only a video stream the size of your iPad screen. For example, if you’re playing a hi-def video, OnLive pares down the data to just what your iPad can show. If you scroll a video off the screen, OnLive doesn’t bother sending you its data. And so on.
OnLive (free) and OnLive Plus ($5 a month) are both brilliantly executed steps forward into the long-promised world of “thin client” computing, in which we can use cheap, low-powered computers to run programs that live online. But the company’s next plans are even more exciting.
For example, the company intends to develop a third service, called OnLive Pro ($10 a month), that will let you run any Windows programs you want. Photoshop, Firefox, Autodesk, games — whatever.
The company still isn’t sure how that will work; somehow, you’ll have to prove that you actually own the software you’re running on its servers. But what a day that will be, when you can run any Windows program on earth on your iPad.
And not just on your iPad. The company is also working on bringing OnLive to Android tablets, iPhones and iPod Touches, Macs and PCs, and even to TV sets. (That last trick would require a small set-top box.)
Suddenly Mac fans will have the full world of Windows and all of its programs — without the speed and memory penalties of programs like Parallels and VMWare. And nobody will have to worry about viruses, spyware or software updates; OnLive’s virtual PCs are always pristine.
This is all so crazy cool, it seems almost ungrateful to point out the flaws — but here goes.
The delay between finger touch and on-screen response is usually tiny. But when you paint or use the handwriting recognition, the lag is painful.
Since you’re actually viewing a video stream, you sometimes see typical video stream glitches like low-resolution text blocks that quickly clear up.
OnLive says that its service works great over 4G cellular connections (like the one provided by an LTE MiFi) — but 3G connections and feeble hotel Wi-Fi hot spots are too slow to be satisfying. OnLive wants at least a 2-megabits-a-second connection on your end.
Finally, you have to sign into OnLive every time you want to use it, even if you’ve just flicked away to another iPad app. (OnLive says it’ll fix that.)
Even so, if ever there were a poster child for the potential of cloud computing, OnLive is it. This is jaw-dropping, extremely polished technology. It opens up a universe of software and horsepower that live far beyond the iPad’s wildest dreams — with no more effort on your part than a few taps on glass.