OnLive Desktop: Windows & Office on Your iPad

I am writing this week’s Free on iTunes in Microsoft Word 2010. Normally there’d be nothing earth-shattering or even mildly newsworthy about what I’m doing. Millions of people use MS Word daily and hundreds of thousands of writers tap out their daily missives in the app. Nothing to see here. Move along.

If I told you I was doing it on my iPad while sitting in Barnes and Nobles you’d likely yawn. There are plenty of apps that let you open and edit files produced in Microsoft Office. Again, nothing much to look at here. Keep moving.

Wait! What if I told you I was actually typing this document out in Microsoft Word, not some work-alike, wannabe, or editing app? And what if I said that I wasn’t actually typing this in on my iPad, but on a virtual cloud-based desktop running Windows and offering access to the whole Microsoft Office Suit, and that I am doing it all for free? That might raise an eyebrow, and well it should because what I am doing right now may well be the future of mobile computing.

I’m using OnLive Desktop, an iOS client for the OnLive virtual Windows environment. With it and an account to OnLive’s servers, I get 2GB of free space to create, store, and edit all manner of PowerPoint, Word, and Excel files in a file system that’s a cross between a traditional Windows grouping and what you might see in Dropbox or some other iOS oriented app’s file arrangement. That’s not a bad thing at all.


If you are used to working in an MS Office 2010 environment you’re going to feel right at home in OnLive. When you fire up the client and log in (you have to log in EVERY TIME you use the client, even if you just want to check the weather in another app) you’re presented with an oh-so-familiar Windows 7 desktop.

Office apps, recycle bin, and “Getting Started” PowerPoint slide deck shortcut icons are arranged along the left side, folders and a shortcut to your documents are on the right of the screen. A “dock” complete with a Windows “Start” button frames the bottom of the screen.

This is a true Windows virtual desktop, so I can shrink the document I’m editing and bring up other apps and work between them.


A true virtual desktop!

Speaking of other apps, your virtual Windows desktop includes several diversion apps as well. Surface Collage lets you arrange pix and is reminiscent of those Microsoft touch tables you’ve heard so much about. The other apps are games geared to take advantage of the iPad’s touch interface.

In use, this environment is not great. OnLive Desktop is completely dependent on your network connection so editing anything with a less than optimal Internet pipe can be, at the very least, frustrating, and at its worse, unusable.

While I was initially editing this document using Barnes and Noble’s anemic, but free WiFi, my view would pixelate to the point where the text was unreadable. This pixilation would fade and intensify, forcing me to pause my typing and wait a while for it to clear. Even on my home network, which averages a healthy 5mb upstream, pixilation crept in when I had two or more windows open. There is no offline editing either.


A poor network connect can make OnLive DOA.

Editing anything without a Bluetooth keyboard is nigh impossible as well. Instead of using the iPad’s built-in keyboard OnLive presents you with a ridiculously small virtual keyboard. Don’t even think about attempting to touch type on it, and even finger poking it is a chore.

The good news is that using a Bluetooth keyboard works well. It is, however, wholly dependent of your network connection as well, and to add to your potential frustration, your Bluetooth connectivity can get confused and stop working entirely if you have more than one virtual app open. It reconnects if you focus on one app, so you’re not completely dead.

If OnLive Desktop is so infuriating to use then why would anyone bother, and why would I say that this is the possible future of mobile computing?

Because even though OnLive Desktop has problems it demonstrates the potential of using a remote client to tap the computing power of muscular servers and the apps that run on them. OnLive Desktop is just the beginning. By version 2.0 we should see marked improvements on everything that’s a problem now. Think of this version as a public beta.

OnLive promises a robust virtual system where we can collaborate, play games and, of course, do real work on systems and in ways our iPads were never designed for. But it isn’t just about OnLive and what they offer.

Other virtual environments are bound to spring up just as there are cloud based file systems today, and we’ll be able to do what we want, where we want, regardless of our choice of mobile devices. It won’t replace an OS native laptop, at least not any time soon, but it opens up your choices. If you only need to use a Windows environment occasionally, for instance, then why dive into the Windows pool?


When it works it works great!

Ultimately, as mobile bandwidth increases, the ability to access and use OnLive types of environments will become commonplace. Think of how the iPad 3 or iPhone 5, both running on a 4G network, might be used to stay connected to your most needed files and applications regardless of how complex they are. It’s going to happen and OnLive Desktop is showing us how.

The app and the account is free so there’s no reason not to see what this possible future is all about.

That’s a wrap for this week. More freebie apps for the road warrior below with direct links.