This week, “major” tech columnists (Including David Pogue and Andy Inhatko) wrote about Onlive Desktop, a system that allows iPads (and some day soon, Android Tablets) to run Microsoft Office apps (Word, PowerPoint, and Excel). Basically, your iPad acts as a terminal, which connects to Onlive’s servers which are actually “running” Microsoft Office. Office has already been configured for touch screens, just as if a Windows tablet was running the apps.
The basic service is free, but you are at the whim of the load on the servers. If too many “free” users are using the service, you may not be able to access the service. You can buy an update at $5 a month which will give you guaranteed access, and the company is going to offer even higher tiers of service that may even host other applications. I wonder if they will install Microsoft One Note, which is tech blogger ViolaJack’s favorite notation app for Windows tablets.
How does Onlive Desktop work? Although I was not able to get on the service the first day (Brandt Schneider reminded me that this was probably the “Pogue Effect” that occurs every time David Pogue mentions a new technology in his article), I have been able to log on every time since then. The service, on my home internet (cable modem) works just fine. There is a slight lag as typing or screen touches translate back to a server–but in general, it is tolerable. Andy Inhatko wrote that trying to use the service in areas with poor wifi (e.g. hotels) is aggravating, and if you have a 3G iPad, there is a time limit that disconnects you after using the service for ten minutes. In addition to free access to Office, Onlive offers 2GB of free storage (that is a LOT of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files), although the interface to use those files is limited (five files at a time and not drag & drop). You can transfer files back and forth by logging into the Onlive website on your traditional Windows or Mac PC.
Would I recommend this service? Conditionally. If you HAVE to have Microsoft Office on your iPad this moment, it is probably worth $5 a month, as there is currently no other way to get “real” Office on your iPad. You will probably want an external keyboard, as the Windows keyboard takes up too much real estate on the screen. If you don’t have Internet access at home (I know one iPad user who does not), this app isn’t really for you.
For most of my needs, Pages and Numbers suffice as a word processor and spreadsheet app. I mentioned some negatives about Keynote for the iPad earlier today (embedding sounds and video), but I would still rather create and display presentations on Keynote more than any other app.
In education, Onlive Desktop is a mixed blessing. Students could join the free service, but there is no guarantee that they could connect when they needed to do so during the day or at home; they need Internet at home to use it; and I don’t see schools paying $45 to $60 per year (9-12 months) for Microsoft Office. However, if you can put other desktop programs on the virtual servers, such as Finale or Smart Notebook, new types of functionality would immediately be added to the iPad.
Generally, I prefer native apps for the iPad that do not require Internet access at every moment. I would rather put my own funds towards a native Microsoft Office app that appears to be coming with the iPad 3 (this is not a promise, but an educated guess). I would want native versions of Finale or SmartMusic should they ever come to the device as well. I always think about these apps in terms of education and student use (not just teacher use) and you can never guarantee that students (or teachers) will have Internet at home. So there has to be a way for students to bring work home and upload responses when they do have Internet available.
If you have an iPad, download Onlive Desktop and give it a try. Even if you use it in emergencies, you can’t beat the price (free) and the experience of using Microsoft Office on an iPad.
Special thanks to Brandt Schneider for the interactions about Onlive Desktop this weekend.