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OnLive turns your iPad into a cloud-driven Microsoft Office workstation

Cloud services are like a trendy new food ingredient or cooking technique that everybody’s suddenly heard about. The industry knows that “all of your apps and data are available to you wherever you are and on every device you own” produces tasty stuff; now, they’re allowing their imaginations to run with the idea and they’re figuring out different ways that it can enhance different things. So it’s like a circular-immersion circulator, only with bandwidth issues.

Google’s approach to cloud apps is Google Docs. It’s the classic Office suite (word processing, spreadsheet, presentation tool) done as a webapp that runs under any browser. Apple’s approach is iWork. The software runs as conventional apps, but Apple produces editions for the desktop, the iPad, and the iPhone, and uses an OS-level cloud service that ensures that both the files and the user experience are consistently applied across all platforms.

OnLive has released a third option: Online Desktop, a service and an app that allows your iPad to run the honest-to-God, for-real, Windows edition of the Microsoft Office suite remotely, via a virtual machine hosted on a server farm in Virginia. The OnLive iPad app only acts as a remote controller. It just transmits your keystrokes (and screen-taps) to the server and delivers the screen images and sounds that the server transmits back.

(In slightly more technical terms: imagine that you’ve got a Windows machine at the office set up as a VNC server, and the only software you’ve installed on it is Office.)

Getting OnLive Desktop up and running on an iPad is dead-simple. Download the app from the iTunes Store and sign up for a free account. You can have the Windows 7 desktop appearing on your iPad (and Steve Jobs spinning in his grave) in less than ten minutes.

OnLive had to do surprisingly little to tune the Windows UI for the iPad. The app faithfully supports all of Windows 7’s built-in touch gestures. You can tap, select, drag, draw, and type with the Windows onscreen keyboard. The app also supports your iPad’s Bluetooth keyboard.

I’ve been using OnLive Desktop for a couple of weeks now. If I’m on a “real” WiFi network (my home, an office, or a school or library), I hardly notice that I’m not using a conventional Windows machine. It’s responsive, as though your keyboard were connected via a USB cable instead of a 600-mile Internet connection. Even when I draw a figure using the pen tool or manipulate photos with two-finger rotate and stretch gestures, there’s very little lag. The screen image itself is almost always pixel-perfect, with very few ghosting or compression artifacts (which would get in the way of trying to paste a paragraph of text exactly where I want it to go).

And using Microsoft Office on my iPad via OnLive is exactly the same experience as using it on a Windows machine. Literally. It’s the exact same app, remember. There’s a minor mental disconnect when I have to reach for the screen to select a menu instead of reaching for a trackpad or a mouse, but to be fair, that’s the same experience I have with iWork apps.

How do you get documents in and out of your virtual Windows space? OnLive provides you with cloud storage for your Office documents folder. You open and save your files from Microsoft Word as usual, and then access this storage from any computer with a web browser. It works just fine, even if it does make me pine for integrated Dropbox support.

I have only two quibbles with OnLive. I wish the virtual Windows desktop didn’t take up the entire screen. It obscures the iPad’s status bar and makes it impossible to glance up and answer the question “Hey, did I just lose my WiFi connection?” or “My keyboard isn’t working; did I forget to turn on Bluetooth?”

Which leads to the second quibble: if you switch away from the app (to check on that Bluetooth setting) you’ll need to log back in to OnLive when you switch back. Slightly annoying.

Overall, though, there’s practically no difference between OnLive Desktop on an iPad and running Office on an actual netbook in front of me. To say it’s as fluid and responsive as running Windows on a fully-powered notebook PC is a bit of a stretch. I mean, an afternoon of writing with OnLive and Word isn’t optimal. The point is that the OnLive experience goes way past “usable” and lands safely within the zone of “useful.”

At least that’s experience when I have a fast, reliable WiFi connection. When I move to the coffeeshop with the worst WiFi in town, however, things go south. The bandwidth there stinks. At times, the Windows screen looks waterlogged. And when too many self-employed wastrels in the shop are all hammering the network at once, the connection sometimes flutters just enough for OnLive to lose the connection entirely.

But that’s the fault of those unreasonable bastards who think they’re selling me coffee instead of top-quality Internet access. Even YouTube tends to sputter in this place. OnLive worked just fine at most of the other coffeeshops I tried.

This experience does underscore OnLive’s fundamental limitation, though. Google Docs’ bandwidth requirements are so basic that I bet I could run it off of a dialup modem. Apple’s iWork apps don’t even care if there’s Internet. But OnLive needs a stable and adequate Internet connection.

OnLive doesn’t recommend using their service through a 3G connection. If you try, the app gives you a warning and then will only run the session for 10 minutes. These limits were academic in my experience; I couldn’t get the app to connect at all under 3G.

OnLive Desktop is available in two tiers. The basic service is free and includes access to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Adobe Reader, plus 2 gigabytes of cloud storage. For $5 a month, you can get Desktop Plus service. You’ll get priority access to the servers (ahead of the riff-raff freeloaders) and OnLive adds Internet Explorer to the mix.

This might be the sole remaining situation in all of modern computing in which Internet Explorer is actually a desirable app.

Firstly, Explorer connects all of your web-based services to your OnLive desktop environment. OnLive doesn’t directly support Dropbox, for instance, but at least you can use Dropbox’s web interface to download documents into your OnLive cloud. When you’re done working on them, you can upload your edits back into Dropbox and they’ll be waiting for you on your desktop PC or Mac when you get home.

Explorer also eliminates the limitations of the iPad’s built-in browser. Chiefly, I’m talking about Apple’s excommunication of Adobe Flash content. Apple seems to have won that war. Adobe has ceased all development of Flash players for mobile devices. But there’s still plenty of content on the Web that won’t play on the iPad. Internet Explorer, via OnLive, allows me to watch all of the TV shows that are available for free streaming through the networks’ websites.

Flash performance is at the same level as everything else via OnLive: it’s as good as what you’d experience on a decent netbook — perfectly watchable.

Opening webpages on Explorer is often much faster than the iPad’s built-in browser. When you use Safari, your iPad has to open multiple connections for every webpage, download dozens of items through your WiFi connection, and render it all into a window. When you’re using OnLive, all of that’s being handled by a massive server farm with a gigabit connection to the Internet. All your iPad needs to do is receive a screen-resolution rendering of an Explorer window that contains the content.

The perceived speed increase varies from page to page. If a site is absolutely lousy with ads and Jackson Pollocked with images, Explorer might render it twice as fast as Safari.

There’s a small price to pay for this speed: the butter-smooth scrolling you get from the iPad’s native browser. Overall, you’d probably reserve Explorer for Flash content and sites that Safari keeps choking on.

OnLive’s promise

OnLive will soon offer an additional tier of service. Desktop Pro will cost $10 a month and increases your cloud storage to 50 gigabytes. The truly interesting feature is the ability to install additional apps. They haven’t announced how this will work, exactly, except to say that OnLive will restrict it to apps that they’ve approved.

But it clicks in nicely with the main feature of OnLive. Tablets are fab, but they’re not great at everything. When you need a desktop app, you really do need a desktop app.

For instance, the iOS edition of Pages can import and export Word docs, but the transmogrified files can only approximate the original document at best. Once a book chapter has been through the hands of my editor and my publisher’s production team, it’s acquired reams of notes and trackable changes, and uses a boatload of fairly intricate style sheets. All of those things disappear during the conversion to Pages.

And so (grumble), even though the only work I really need to do on this book while I’m away in San Francisco for three days is (curse) rewrite a single 1500-word section of a single chapter and send it in (pout), I have to drag my six-pound MacBook to the other side of the continent and back again.

The OnLive service means I could easily travel with just my iPad and my Bluetooth keyboard. It represents a small but interesting step forward in the credibility of the iPad as a “real” computer.

OnLive intends to release an Android edition of the client app in the near future. I consider that to be a verrrrrry interesting development. I doubt that the presence of “real” Office functions on Android tablets will have any impact on the success of the iPad. But it could certainly shift the conversation about Ultrabooks, and potentially even Windows 8.

I’m preparing a review of ASUS’ Transformer Prime. This is a full-sized Android tablet that transforms quite nimbly into a conventional notebook-style computer with a keyboard, a trackpad, and a battery life that surpasses any other Ultrabook’s by a factor of two. It even runs longer than the iPad by a fair stretch.

The combination of this tablet plus its notebook dock isn’t cheap, but it’s cheaper than an Ultrabook. The ability to run the Windows edition of Office on an ultra-mobile device might be the only feature that consumers really want out of an Ultrabook . . . and the ability to undock the Transformer from the keyboard and use it as a conventional tablet device for ebooks, casual browsing, and gaming might close the sale.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, a key component of Apple’s message was that it represented the first incarnation of a whole new class of computer: the “post-PC” device.

That was two years ago and I’m still not sure that the world is eager to leave the PC behind. If it were, wouldn’t we see a whole range of successful post-PC devices instead of just one? The iPhone begat boatloads of successful multitouch smartphones. You see Android phones in people’s hands wherever you. But the iPad still stands alone.

It’s possible that people still like a little bit of a blur between these post-PC devices and the conventional computers that they still rely on. OnLive is valuable because it lets you roam with a tablet while leaving at least a toe on conventional, steady ground.

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