OnLive's train wreck: Office on the iPad

The OnLive Desktop service shows just how wrong desktop virtualization can be

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Any files in the OnLive Desktop environment get there via OnLive's website upload and download page (, not via the OnLive Desktop app. That's clunky enough, but it gets worse: You can't upload files from your iPad's browser, because the iPad doesn't use a traditional file system. iPad apps exchange files with each other and with cloud services such as Dropbox through the iOS Open In mechanism. Unfortunately, OnLive Desktop doesn't support iOS Open In for taking in files. If you're on the road and you want to work on an Office file you get via email or is in your corporate cloud storage account, you can't access it in OnLive Desktop. What you can do, ironically, is go to the OnLive Desktop files list via the iPad's browser and open a file by tapping its name -- but that file only opens in a native iPad app that supports Open In, such as the built-in QuickLook viewer or a commercial app such as Apple Pages, Quickoffice, or GoodReader. 

It's also key to understand that OnLive Desktop works only when you have a live Internet connection of 1.5Mbps or faster (and if the OnLive servers have enough capacity for your session). You can't use OnLive Desktop over 3G connections. That further limits its utility. Most people will do better to use a native app they can guarantee is always available, even offline, and can work with the documents already on the iPad, sent via email, or hosted at a cloud storage service.

With OnLive Desktop, you get a pure Windows 7 and Office 2010 environment that can't interact with the device you're using it on or the content available to that device; that is scaled inappropriately for the iPad's screen resolution; and that is available only when you have a broadband Internet connection. The service isn't consistently accessible; the error message blames the Internet connection speed, but I don't believe it. Each time this happened, I could get access a few seconds later on the same Wi-Fi network and back-end broadband connection. That feels like a capacity issue at OnLive's servers or cloud provider. (OnLive's Web page does note that access to the free service is "as available.") Worse, that error page has no retry button -- or any control -- so you're stuck. You have to leave the OnLive Desktop app or close it using iOS's multitasking dock, then reopen it, to try again.

Running a non-touch-savvy operating system like Windows 7 is awkward on an iPad or other tablet operating system, but at least VDI products such as Citrix Receiver provide some mapping of the iPad's user input to Windows to bridge some of the gap. OnLive Desktop does none of that integration. Of course, products such as Citrix Receiver require you have your own VDI back end, a complex and expensive investment, which is why OnLive Desktop is appealing conceptually.

OnLive Desktop is available for free, which is no bargain given its overall uselessness. OnLive plans to offer paid subscriptions starting at $10 per user per month that increase the included storage capacity from the free version's 2GB and provides "prioirity access" to the OnLive servers. That lets you install your own Windows apps, as well as one that is IT-manageable (meaning IT can specify user entitlements to Windows apps). These service versions are not yet available, so I could not test if they addressed any of the free version's shortcomings.

Still, I can't imagine anyone using OnLive Desktop for real work. I suppose if you have Office projects that use capabilities not available in native iPad apps -- such as the need to edit style sheets or do revisions tracking in Word documents -- OnLive Desktop could be useful when you have no other option and can't wait until you get to a real PC.

Unfortunately, despite the concept's clear appeal, OnLive Desktop's Windows-via-the-cloud offering is too awful in its current state, and it's a great example of why you can't stick one operating system onto another without any integration.

This article, "OnLive's train wreck: Office on the iPad," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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