OnLive Desktop uses technology developed for its parent OnLive gaming service, which lets you stream high-end video games (that you rent or purchase) to your PC in much the way you'd get an on-demand movie from Netflix. Instead of games, OnLive Desktop streams a virtual Windows desktop outfitted with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Adobe Reader, Internet Explorer, Windows Paint and Calculator, and Microsoft Surface Collage.
Like CloudOn, OnLive Desktop runs the applications on its servers, sending to its mobile apps only the data that Windows sends to a PC's graphics subsystem. That display data is tweaked to fit on the iPad or on an Android tablet screen. You simply install the OnLive mobile app and log in, and a Windows desktop appears.
In my tests on a new iPad, OnLive's expertise with streaming media showed to particular advantage in its version of Internet Explorer, which can capably display a lot of video that you either need a special app for--or can't get at all--on the iPad. ABC's show Missing looked great in OnLive Desktop (you have to get the ABC iPad app to see it otherwise), as did NBC's Saturday Night Live (NBC doesn't support the iPad at all). You can also create bookmarks that will reappear whenever you log in.
OnLive Desktop made no apparent effort to resolve problems involved in squeezing the Microsoft Office Ribbon onto the iPad's touchscreen display. Because some Ribbon icons are quite small, it's easy to tap the wrong one--an issue that CloudOn addresses by tweaking the Ribbon to enlarge icons (and, in at least one case, by creating a new tab to accommodate the overflow).
More annoyingly, OnLive Desktop's included 2GB of free file storage can be a hassle to use. The problem isn't on the iPad end of things--all documents you create or edit in OnLive Desktop automatically save to your OnLive Files folder, accessible in any browser when you log in to desktop.onlive.com. But if you want to work with a document on a PC, you must download it to the PC, and then upload it when you're done to make the new version available on the tablet. There's no equivalent to the Dropbox service that CloudOn uses, which automatically synchronizes documents saved to a folder on your hard drive. (In fact, you might be better off forgoing OnLive's storage and using Dropbox via IE.)
Also, OnLive's uncertain licensing situation for Microsoft Office is troubling, especially for business users. Microsoft has said that OnLive Desktop doesn't have the license it needs to offer Office apps to consumers. OnLive recently switched from using the Windows 7 desktop to using Windows Server. Microsoft applauded the move, saying, "We will work with OnLive to take a closer look at its service and ensure it is operating according to its license." An OnLive spokesperson said that the company isn't commenting on the issue.
OnLive Desktop's free version comes with 2GB of file storage and access to the Office apps and Windows utilities, but to use IE--one of the service's best features--you have to upgrade to the $5-a-month Plus service. That isn't too expensive, but I wish OnLive had put a little more thought into usability; as is, the Office apps aren't as easy to use on a tablet as they need to be.
A final caveat: OnLive's website says that people with the free account will have only "as-available" access to the desktop. This means you might encounter significant lag if a lot of paid users are hitting the servers at any given moment.
This story, "OnLive Desktop: Virtual Office Apps on Your iPad" was originally published by PCWorld.