The other day I pulled up a Flash-heavy site on an iPad, and it loaded up faster than you can say “banned from the App Store.” In fact, the site—Mercedes-Amg.com, which is so annoying it’ll put you off from buying a luxury car forever—ran faster on the iPad than it does on my monster desktop at home. Next I loaded up an HD movie trailer, and it began to play instantly. As I scrubbed from the beginning of the video to the end, the images kept pace with my finger, showing me exactly where I was in the clip along the way.
This wasn’t a special iPad—it wasn’t jailbroken or rigged in any other way—and I wasn’t connected to the Internet on any sort of superfast connection. Instead, I was sitting in a conference room at OnLive, where CEO Steve Perlman was showing me the soon-to-be-released Pro version of the company’s new Cloud Desktop app.
The app—a bare-bones, free version was released last week at CES—lets an iPad run Windows 7 in the cloud. It’s a bizarre, head-turning experience: You touch the app and suddenly Microsoft’s familiar interface is emblazoned on your Apple screen. Then you tap around and everything just works—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Internet Explorer, and pretty much anything else that runs on Windows, which is everything—can now run on your iPad.
And it’s fast. Like OnLive’s video game service, which allows you to play HD games that don’t actually run on your own machine, every button you press on your iPadded Windows is sent back to OnLive’s servers in the cloud. All processing occurs there, and the resulting video is shuttled back to your screen. This circuitous route sounds like it would result in a jerky experience, but that’s what’s magical about OnLive: Somehow, it just works. The entire Internet lies between your processor and your display, but when you tap, load, type, scroll or do anything else, the machine responds as if it were right there with you.
Because OnLive’s servers have a 10GB Internet connection, browsing the Web through the app is faster than browsing through the iPad’s Safari browser: When Perlman loaded up a speed-test site, the meter ran all the way to 800 Mbps and then tapped out. It couldn’t keep up with OnLive’s actual browsing speed.
I was skeptical about OnLive when it was announced a few years ago. Shifting you data storage to the cloud makes intuitive sense, but sending your real-time processing—especially for CPU-hungry video games—hundreds or thousands of miles away sounded insane. I became a believer, though, when I first tried the service in the summer of 2010. I’ve been excited about OnLive ever since, because it was clear that if Perlman—who’s been called Silicon Valley’s Thomas Edison—perfected cloud gaming, he could use his platform to do anything.
Now, I understand that running Windows on an iPad doesn’t sound all that useful. Most people buy an iPad to get away from Windows, after all. But we’re not going to shed Windows that quickly: Many large companies still run most of their business operations on Windows programs, and either because of a lack of resources or because those programs require more processing power than you can get on mobile devices, they’re not going to get rid of Windows apps anytime soon.
Near the end of the demo, Perlman showed me something amazing. On his iPad, he loaded up Autodesk Maya, a $4,000 3D animation program that runs best on souped-up eight-core desktops. Then, using his fingers, he began to manipulate a 3D wireframe image of a face, and it responded immediate. It’s unlikely that a 3D animator would use an iPad to create his next blockbuster, but Perlman points out that in the movie business, people are usually collaborating on the same piece of video from many points around the globe. OnLive would let these groups work together seamlessly: An animator could edit a clip in Bangalore while producers watch what he’s doing in Burbank.
Perlman says the Pro version of Cloud Desktop—which would allow you to browse the Web and install your own (non-malware) programs, meaning that you can get Chrome on an iPad—will launch “soon,” for a $9.99 monthly subscription. If it takes off, OnLive could crush the remote desktop industry led by Citrix, whose revenues alone are close to $2 billion annually.
But I suspect that Perlman has bigger ambitions than just being the best remote desktop company. By pushing processing to the cloud, OnLive has found a magical solution to many of the problems that plague modern desktop computing: By running Windows on OnLive’s servers rather than your own machine, you don’t need to backup your data (OnLive stores it all online, and you can even add additional cloud storage apps like Dropbox). You never need to upgrade your hardware (your rinky dink PC will be able to run Maya just fine) nor your OS (OnLive will always run the latest, best-patched version of Windows). And for software companies, cloud processing would solve a major headache—piracy. If high-end apps like Maya are distributed mainly through cloud systems, the code could be meticulously tracked and controlled, meaning that fewer copies will get pilfered.
Sure, desktop software is on its way out. But think of OnLive as a bridge between the PC world and the post-PC era. Steve Perlman owns the bridge, and it’s covered in money.