Your Next Windows Desktop Could Come From A Gaming Company

A gaming company's new cloud-based desktop could point to future directions in desktop-as-a-service.
Posted January 11, 2012

This is CES week, when a bunch of products are typically announced that employees want to use at work.

It used to be that those of us in IT could just laugh at the idea. But since the iPhone we aren’t laughing that much anymore. While we didn’t need to worry about iPods much, the invasion of the iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets have got many of us up on edge.

However, one announcement at CES could actually lower our risks rather than raise them, particularly if we are in the mid-market or focused on equipping small satellite offices: OnLive, an on-line gaming company, announced a cloud-based Windows desktop complete with applications, eventually including high performance applications like CAD or media editing.

What makes this particularly interesting is that these applications will be able to run on iPads and Android tablets more safely than if they ran (which they can’t) locally.

In short, they launched an offering with a similar promise to Citrix but without the massive costs and avoiding most of the performance penalties. It is called the OnLive Desktop and it promises to revolutionize what you use. In theory it could run on your car and will run on some TVs this year for instance.


I’ve been fascinated by OnLive since it launched last year because it does what a Robbie Bach, the ex-head of Microsoft’s media division, said couldn’t be done: it streams high performance games.

They created a unique type of server that fully emulates a high performance PC and then they stream the desktop to a remote device. Initially these devices were PCs but they have expended to TVs and most recently tablets.

Their only limitation is bandwidth, latency, and the physical dimensions of the device. For instance while the OnLive client will likely run on some smartphones, the Windows user interface would truly suck on such a device and it wouldn’t be usable.

What is really interesting is the OnLive servers don’t come in one flavor. They range from minimal performance up to massive capability designed to support top end games.

This same high-end capability can be used to drive CAD or Media creation applications that would typically require a workstation costing several times the cost of a standard desktop. Granted, as you raised the resolution up to what might be required, in many cases you’d likely hit network bandwidth limits at the very high end. But for folks who are just reviewing a product or needing to work on a project from home the tradeoffs could be acceptable – and the cost savings potentially mammoth.

Now the initial offering is really tailored for small business or remote shops with few users, as they haven’t yet cooked up an enterprise offering or put in place a program where you could buy your own servers and implement this solution on premise (likely a requirement for many if not most enterprises). However, initially the service is provided for free on an “as available” basis, making it very inexpensive to test.

Looking Forward

To me this really represents the promise of a cloud desktop. Currently high bandwidth wireless capability is just adequate for this service with a 3G radio, and it gets vastly better with 4G. But given network overcapacity with carriers like AT&T the best bet for a service like this now is on a good Wi-Fi or wired network link where it provides the best performance.

Still, I’ve been messing with a Samsung Galaxy Tablet for OnLive gaming and the result is livable. However, Windows 7 just doesn’t have a great touch interface and most games and applications aren’t designed for touch yet.

However, as we move into the Windows 8 timeframe, suddenly touch will become the preferred interface and touch on a tablet will become primary for Windows applications and games. Now taking a service like OnLive and moving ahead to Windows 8 provides some interesting possibilities. It could provide easy ways to get employees used to this new operating system version and allow testing on tablets without actually having to buy one first.

Right now I use OnLive to look at new video games (mostly to make sure I don’t give gifts to kids that will get me in trouble with parents) but this could be a great way to test software without having to actually install it on a PC. Image testing could be shifted to the cloud for approval and, in some cases, the corporate image in BYOB (Bring Your Own Box) could be provided this way. This would assure the employee doesn’t screw it up and enable security to be maintained over it should the employee lose their PC or tablet.

In many ways, OnLive may be the first 3rd generation thin client or first truly Cloud-based thin client offering, and it suggests some interesting coming changes.

Wrapping Up: Desktop As A Service

We are clearly on a path to transform computing to a service that can be provided on multiple platforms. Interestingly, gaming took the lead here and legends like Trip Hawkins have been arguing that building hardware is just not a good strategy for software anymore.

OnLive, with their desktop announcement, moves us one step closer to treating computing more like you’d treat any other online service: as something you’d subscribe to and someone else would generally worry about. In the end I think we are just at the beginning of this change and a decade from now will wonder why anyone ever loaded, patched, or maintained their own software.

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