Cloud computing service OnLive proves they are more than fun and games with the reveal of OnLive Desktop: A free app that gives you a Windows 7 operating system, the multi-touch experience of Microsoft Surface, and a fully functional copy of Microsoft Office. Need more? You also get 2GB of free cloud storage.
But what to do with it?
Playing around with the OnLive Desktop is an interesting experience. Having already used Splashtop as a remote connection to the PCs in my home for the past year, the novelty of seeing Windows 7 on an iPad was lost on me. Windows 7 is not an ideal user interface for touchscreens. It is certainly usable, but you’re not going to confuse the UI for a native solution. The buttons are a too small and the touch input always registers a little lower than you’d expect. You will definitely want to use a stylus for this. None the less, I was delighted to finally play with the Microsoft Surface apps. It’s always fun to get your hands on something you’ve only seen demoed at trade shows.
What wasn’t lost on me was a free copy of Microsoft Office 2010 (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint). Media Player, Paint, Surface Collage, and three touch games are also included. These applications feature text input via virtual keyboard as well as handwriting recognition. Common iOS gestures such as pinch-to-zoom and swiping have been implemented naturally and work as expected. Right-clicking is activated by a long tap. While the performance of the applications looked a little laggy to my eyes, I never felt any significant control lag with the physical input. It was a little disconcerting at first, but I soon learned to trust the system to make sure that what I was doing got done.
Handwriting recognition was pretty terrible using my finger. While I did not attempt it with a stylus, previous experience with the technology indicates it would work acceptably once you got past the learning curve. There is definitely a certain rhythm and style required to use Microsoft’s handwriting system. The virtual keyboard, however, is a whole other problem.
OnLive Desktop uses the Microsoft virtual keyboard which simply feels wrong compared to either Apple or Android’s implementation. The keyboard is cramped with its oversized tab, shift, and enter keys, to say nothing of the presence of the obsolete caps lock. The design is an exact representation of a physical keyboard. It obviously harkens back before the days of touchscreen mass adoption. Windows 7’s virtual keyboard feels outdated and clumsy by modern standards. Worse, having the traditional Windows taskbar on the bottom of the screen, complete with predefined quick-launch app buttons. led to frequent accidental launching of programs while attempting to type. The taskbar cannot be relocated or hid as all customization options of your virtual system are locked. On the up-side, I found the keyboard to be surprisingly responsive considering I was typing on a machine hundreds of miles away over an Internet connection.
The true flaw of the OnLive Desktop is its lack of connectivity. In a twist of the greatest irony, this remote, cloud based, virtual computer features absolutely NOTHING in the way of actual connectivity. There is no web browser, no local LAN connectivity, no support for other cloud storage solutions, and no media outlets. Heck, you can’t even access documents, pictures, or video stored on the iPad itself. Currently, the only means of getting your files in or out of OnLive Desktop is by logging the OnLive Desktop’s web page and selecting files one at a time for uploading to your OnLive cloud. Documents can’t even be shared between fellow OnLive Desktop users. While OnLive has promised support for some of these options some time in the future, the product is here NOW.
OnLive Desktop is a great tech demo. It shows OnLive’s computer virtualization and state of the art streaming technology applied to something other than video games. The problem is that this new implementation is attempting to solve a problem no one has. Why would I ever trap myself in a virtual PC with no connection to… well, anything when the iPad can natively connect me to Google Docs for editing, sharing, and real-time collaboration on Microsoft Office documents? What good is a media player that can’t connect to your media? The lack of connectivity and inability to access data on the iPad even short circuits the gift of free cloud storage. Adding insult to injury, you’re saddled with an interface unsuited for touch-based input on a 10” screen. There are much better apps, both native and cloud based, to do everything OnLive Desktop does.
If OnLive had instead released the long rumored cloud based web browser (with Flash support) as part of the Desktop, it would have been fulfilling a need in the platform. If the developers had taken time to customize some basic system options for use on a tablet (or not prevented users from doing it themselves), it would be less obnoxious to interface with. They chose to do neither. OnLive engineers said “Look what we can do! Isn’t it cool?” and kicked it out the door. While it is indeed cool, the only thing OnLive Desktop does well is teach the following lesson: Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should.
OnLive Desktop for iPad is available for free via iTunes.
An Android version is expected “soon”.