Now OnLive Is Putting Windows in the Cloud

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OnLive spent years developing technology for putting high-performance games in the cloud–then streaming them to Windows PCs, Macs, a tiny console and–most recently–tablets and phones. The great thing about figuring out how to do this for applictions as demanding as modern 3D games is that doing the same thing for virtually any other type of software is, by comparison, a cakewalk. Even if that software is an entire operating system.

Today at CES, OnLive announced OnLive Desktop–a new iPad app streams a full-blown Windows 7 environment to Apple’s tablet. As with OnLive’s gaming service, the software runs on potent Internet servers, and only screen images, taps and other input get sent over the network.

(MORE: Check out Techland’s coverage of the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show)

Now, OnLive isn’t the first company to put Windows on the iPad. Remote-access software such as LogMeIn does it, but the copy of Windows in question must run on your own computer. And Citrix is designed for big companies which want to roll out Windows apps to lots of employees without equipping them with Windows PCs.

OnLive Desktop doesn’t require you to have a Windows PC, and it’s priced for consumers and small businesses as well as bigger outfits. In fact, it’s available at the best price of all: free. The freebie version will only provide access to Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and the company makes no promises about availability. It’s due to go live in Apple’s App Store on Thursday.

A $9.99-per-month Pro version, aimed at prosumer types and individual businesspeople, will offer additional Office apps, plus the ability to install additional programs and change Windows settings to your liking. It’s “coming soon,” as is a more Citrix-esque version designed for larger organizations to deploy to their employees. Both of these versions will also let you broadcast your Windows desktop to other people so they can see what you see, which opens up possibilities for collaboration and training.

All these variants come with a cloud storage drive–2GB for free accounts, and 50GB for paid ones. You can use it to shuttle files back and forth between the Desktop environment and your devices.

OnLive also plans to bring Desktop to Android tablets, smartphones, PCs, Macs and its own MicroConsole. Assuming that these ambitious plans pan out, it would give you a Windows environment you could get to from nearly every computing device you own.

OnLive founder and CEO Steve Perlman recently gave me a demo of OnLive Desktop. The performance was zippy indeed: Apps launched at least as quickly as they do on a fast Windows PC, and the responsiveness of touch input was almost indistinguishable from that of a touch-screen Windows PC like an HP TouchSmart. Videos played without hiccups. Windows felt like…well, it felt like Windows.

Of course, Windows feeling like Windows isn’t an unalloyed blessing. Since iPads usually aren’t connected to physical keyboards, the OnLive Desktop uses Windows’ built-in touch-screen input features to let you interact with the OS. They include an on-screen keyboard, roughly akin to the one in iOS, plus handwriting recognition. Menus, windows and other items respond to touch input as well.

In my brief hands-on time with Desktop, I didn’t find all of this entirely satisfying. The handwriting recognition is surprisingly accurate, but you write into an unwieldy window. Icons are often too small to easily tap with your finger. Basically, Windows as we know it has never felt like it was designed to be used with touch and pen input rather than a mouse and keyboard. (If it was, we’d all be using Tablet PCs today and the iPad might never have been invented.) There’s nothing OnLive can do about that.

I’m also curious about how well the app works on a variety of networks that might be less robust than the one at OnLive’s office, including crummy Wi-Fi, wimpy broadband and various flavors of cellular. (Perlman told me it works okay over 3G and is a delight over 4G.)

Still, I’m already excited by OnLive Desktop’s potential. For all the things that the iPad excels at, there are times when Windows would be better. (For instance, as far as I know, there’s no way to do collaborative word processing with revision marks in any iOS app.) An iPad that could be an iPad most of the time, and a Windows tablet when that made more sense, would be that much closer to the perfect computing device. I’m looking forward to spending more time with Desktop once it hits the App Store.