In January, video game streaming company OnLive decided to enter the remote desktop space with “OnLive Desktop.” The service allows anyone with an iPad (and soon Android or any other computing platform) to access a Windows 7 desktop in the cloud and use it much like any computer. It comes with 2GB of cloud storage and access to Microsoft Office applications like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. All for free. Unfortunately, it was missing one critical element: a browser. OnLive restricted access to the browser and didn’t allow the installation of apps. OnLive Desktop Plus changes this.
Today, OnLive is announcing a $5 per month add-on to its Desktop service. Desktop Plus adds browser access to the Windows experience with full Adobe Flash support and gigabit (or close to it) browsing speeds. It leverages OnLive’s huge server farms that normally stream out complex video games to subscribers of its Netflix-like game service. Streaming a Desktop environment, the company found out, is so much easier that it can almost be done as a side project by its servers.
We met up with OnLive CEO Steve Perlman last week for a demo, and found it impressive. One of the big problems with the original OnLive desktop is how difficult it it is to transfer files out of the remote environment and back onto your iPad or to some other computer. Desktop Plus solves this problem with the browser. Thanks to integration with some Web versions of services like Drop Box, you can now transfer files in quite a few more ways. It’s still not perfect — a fact that Perlman readily admits — but he says the company is working as fast as it can to improve things.
Using the browser is a uniquely fun experience. Internet Explorer is currently the only browser available, though other options like Chrome will be added in the future. Like with any remote desktop, there is a bit of lag between when you click something on the Windows 7 desktop (which is accessed via an app on your iPad) and when it actually happens. This delay was a fraction of a second on a 4G LTE connection in Manhattan and there’s no great way to get around this ever-so-slight lag. Strangely though, since the Internet connection for these servers your connecting to is so fast, it negates the slight lag you get from the service itself. So while it might take a half second to click on a link, once that click goes through, the Web page actually loads much faster than it normally would on your iPad or PC. Our pages were loading at 750 megabits per second on the day in question. Downloading attachments from email or the Web is also an alarmingly fast experience. A 50 megabyte file downloaded in about a second or two.
Loading flash content is also a great experience. Flash sites and videos often run slow or sluggishly, but OnLive’s servers are powerful enough to render the most complex sites in seconds and brows them as if they were Craigslist. For anyone who needs Flash, this is a great service. It’s fast enough that you could watch Hulu or streaming video as well with no real problem at resolutions that would be too high for your machine at home. Activities like this can sometimes use up far less bandwidth as well, under some circumstances. Using OnLive to browse could use as little as 10 percent of the data a regular iPad browser would, according to Perlman.
Assuming people bite on this $5 plan, a $10 per month Desktop Pro version is also on the way, which will offer 50GB of storage and limited software installation, as well as some extra controls for IT managers, which would be needed should a company decide to deploy OnLive Desktop across their office. Currently, the system is only available on the iPad, but we’ve seen working versions on the iPhone and Android devices of all types. Perlman told us that versions for the PC and Mac aren’t far off either.
Perhaps the most interesting demo we saw was for a program that might eventually be available in the Pro version. It’s professional software called Maya and is used to create 3D animation and visual effects. Right now, to use this software, you have to pay thousands of dollars and you need one beast of a computer to run it, but Perlman showed a demo of it running over OnLive on an iPad like it was nothing. He hinted that the software could be available via the cloud, allowing you to more easily collaborate and take advantage of OnLive’s gigabit Internet speeds to upload the Gigabytes of files it takes to load a complex 3D model or animation. Software like this could potentially be available for a cheaper monthly fee or even for free late at night, bringing down the cost barrier of entry for professional-grade software like this. Imagine the possibilities if anyone had the opportunity and access to learn how to use software like this on their own time.
We asked Steve if this really fits in with OnLive’s reputation as a games company and he told me that it was never a game company. OnLive is a cloud services company. Gaming just gave them a foot in the door.