Remember the hoo-hah OnLive cooked over some supposedly fast-and-loose Windows licensing? Well Nivio's been quietly rolling out its own, proudly licensed, version of a cloud-based Windows desktop.
Its minimum requirement is the ability to handle HTML5, meaning that a Microsoft-powered OS can be used across iPads, Android phones, MacBooks and everything else in between. Nivio offers up a cloud storage platform alongside a Windows 7-style (it's based on the Windows 2008 R2 Server; same building blocks) OS that allows the user to sync up to 10GBs across devices. What else does it have? Microsoft Office -- on your tablet or smartphone of choice and all licensed through Redmond's very own Service Provider License Agreement (SPLA). The service launched in February, and is currently clearing a backlog of users on its books, attempting to gauge how people are using the service before exploding any servers. It's also started making its first steps in Europe, so we decided to take a look while its makers were in London.
Financed with a subscription system, users pay for monthly access to a remote Windows UI. This starts at $5 / €5 for the bare Windows package limited to 10 hours' use per month, while unlimited use is priced at $15 / €15. From there, you'll be able to install vetted programs (including free staples like Skype) from the built-in app store -- paid-for content like Corel Draw is gradually making its way onto Nivio. Purchasing apps doesn't require you to download or install the software -- servers on Nivio's side flip a switch and you then have access to the app of your choice.
As all the heavy lifting is done server-side, you'll only need a latency of around 256 kbps to allow stable use. This meant that file transfer (offline options aside) and internet-based activities like browsing were several leagues faster than the 3G connection we were using because it was all happening off-site. While the Windows 7 interface is better suited to tablets -- if only for space and the larger on-screen keyboard -- you'll still be able to gain access to your cloud desktop, files and Office through your phone too.
From our brief time spent on the Galaxy Nexus version, it actually seemed more responsive compared to the time we spent on the iPad 2 version. The HTML5 base also offers a simple solution for users looking to access Windows through the browser on other PC platforms. Nivio's "chief wizard", Sachin Dev Duggal, added that they were looking to make the reverse (OS X on a PC) a reality too. As the service is cloud-based, you can even stop on one device, load up the client on another and continue your project where you left it.
It took a while to get used to using the on-screen mouse icon, but there's some familiar multi-touch functionality, like pinch-to-zoom, available inside Windows -- something that proved useful with Internet Explorer. We also found our finger hovering over the home button, something that would take us out of the Nivio app, not the Windows desktop. When we logged into the Nivio software -- create an account and get your own dedicated "public" webpage to share content and documents to anyone with internet access -- and it soon loads into the familiar Windows setup. From there, it's largely a blank canvas. You can access files previously shared to your Nivio account and add extra apps (free and paid-for) through the built-in app store. Not everything we're hoping for is here just yet (we'd love to see Adobe Photoshop and other workflow programs we already use) but the likes of Google Talk, Firefox, Chrome, Corel Draw and Skype help flesh out the existing selection.
However, it's the Office suite that forms a large part of the appeal of Nivio's service. During our hands-on, we found Word largely unchanged from what we're used to. Nivio has integrated the native keyboard on devices, which meant there was no need to reacquaint ourselves with a new layout -- we jumped straight into typing on the iPad.
While Nivio's geared towards small businesses, developers and students -- who get their own discounted prices starting from $2 / €2 for 10 hours -- it's simple enough for anyone looking to get both occasional or constant access to Windows and Microsoft Office. Yes, the Windows UI is locked down -- you won't get the freedom to install and customize the ecosystem as fully as you would a physical machine. However, you will be free to utilize any hardware that's capable of HTML5. The service appears to work at its best when you're using a physical keyboard -- but with the likes of the Transformer Prime (and plenty of third-party accessories) able to make this happen, this may solve plenty of mobile office conundrums.
A workable version of Windows available where ever you can glean a 3G signal is likely to attract plenty of interest, while the ability to dip in and out of paying -- Nivio will only charge for the months that you use the service -- make it a very pervasive option for Windows dabblers.