Is xCloud – the Xbox game streaming service – a glimpse at the future of the desktop?

The advancements Microsoft will have to make to enable their xCloud gaming effort will benefit the virtual desktop effort as well. Why that’s a good thing…

microsoft project xcloud halo

 [Disclosure: The companies mentioned are clients of the author.]

We are in the early stages of moving local processing to the cloud and transitioning from the modern PC to something far closer to a terminal. This week, for example, HP launched their new Chromebox Chromebooks and added them to their DaaS (Device as a Service) plan. Chrome-based products initially anticipated a cloud future at a time when Microsoft didn’t seem that interested in the cloud.

Man, have things changed: the Windows Virtual Desktop is now the lead contender for this eventual migration.

Thin client solutions have been around for a while, but – outside of tightly targeted groups with low-performance needs – it’s been a niche market, largely due to latency and wireless performance. With 5G and WiFi 6, according to Qualcomm, both become nonissues. But the market needs something that’s a solid proof point, and that appears to be the xCloud gaming service.

What gaming brings to the table

While latency is annoying in desktop apps, in competitive eSports, it’s a deal-breaker. You can’t be competitive with a twitch game if you have too much latency. Latency is even more problematic for MMOs (Massive Multi-Player Online games), limiting the size of groups and badly damaging the overall experience.

For cloud gaming to work, gaming latency not only needs to start low, it also needs to remain low regardless of network and system loading. And the loading is significant because current-generation gaming requires massive levels of performance, increasingly realistic levels of realism and increasingly powerful AIs for NPCs (non-playing characters) that will push the limits of both the network and the servers providing the service. It’s also forcing Microsoft to rethink the design of those servers to optimize for these heavy loads.

To assure the xCloud effort, Microsoft will have to work to reduce latency but also to ensure it remains low regardless of system loading. And because games can ramp users massively as players get home from work or school, the ability to scale up near-instantly when people come to work is also covered.

On that last, the loading times are almost exactly opposite. In general, desktop loading would occur during work and school hours while game loading will occur after work or school hours…allowing the flexible use of the same hardware. This usage model should help reduce the cost, and therefore the price, for both groups (which is generally the same group, just doing different things).

So, the result of the xCloud effort is that it will drive needed performance and latency improvements that will benefit the Windows Virtual Desktop effort and reduce the cost of both by providing a path to full utilization of the hardware.

It will also open up technology that will provide better rendering, better voice communication and tighter AI coupling, which are all part of online gaming and could broaden the feature set for desktop users as well, as Microsoft moves to make use of that otherwise-unused gaming capability in their desktop effort.

Our cloud-based gaming – and desktop – future

The anticipated move to the cloud for the desktop has and will have many hills and valleys. With the move to cloud-based gaming, however, Microsoft will be able to not only blaze a trail to desktop performance but create a level of headroom that could revolutionize what we do on our business desktop.

With the kind of performance available such capabilities as telepresence, dedicated user AI support, new ways to collaborate and a whole host of new features we currently aren’t even thinking about become possible over the next few years. I expect we’ll see changes that will be in-line with what we experienced when we moved away from terminals, as we effectively move back to terminals again.

The only thing we can be sure of this that this will change things. A lot. I think we’ll be surprised about how much.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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