For some reason, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of cloud-based Windows 7 and Microsoft Office offerings, including scarily bad services such as OnLive Desktop, which was a media darling in January based on nothing more than demos. The real product is all but unusable -- you lose your connection when you switch to other apps, for example, and you can't use the iPad's native keyboard. Plus, the company violated Microsoft's Windows 7 licensing terms, offering an essentially illegal desktop-as-a-service product. (That issue has since been resolved.)
CloudOn is different. It's a Cloud service you should seriously consider if you work with Microsoft Office on your iPad and need more capabilities than the native iWork or Quickoffice apps provide. The 2.0 version released this week is truly compelling.
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CloudOn does several things right. First, it uses your Dropbox or Box cloud storage to save and access the files you are working on, and you can use both services, such as to separate personal and work projects. That means no messy file transfers before you go or when on the road, as OnLive requires. Your files are accessible from a variety of devices, including your iPad for access by other apps. If you use Box's enterprise service offering, you can even take on files in a workgroup setting and under IT management policies.
Second, CloudOn uses native iOS capabilities where it makes sense. For example, when working with text, you get the iPad's own onscreen keyboard or you can use a Bluetooth keyboard, if you have one -- not the funky, too-small Windows 7 floating keyboard. CloudOn even adds to the standard oscreen ipad keyboard Windows-specific keys: the Ctrl, Alt, Del, and Esc keys, the F1 through F12 function keys, and the four cursor keys. You also get file sharing via email using the standard iOS Share facility.
You can switch to other apps while using CloudOn, without fear of losing your work; all changes are saved instantly to your Dropbox or Box folder. There's no Windows desktop to get in the way -- you work instead in full-screen versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, as appropriate for the files you've opened or created. You run the actual Windows versions of these apps, so you have all their native capabilities, and you can access supporting files, such as images, from Dropbox or Box's folder hierarchy using the standard Windows file dialog boxes.
CloudOn also provides the ability to open PDF files and fill out forms via Adobe's Reader app, as well as preview a variety of image formats. There's nothing wrong with that, but the iPad can preview all such files natively, and Adobe's free Reader app for the iPad handles the rest. Of course, having these capabilities within CloudOn in addition to on the iPad itself is nice -- but not a make-or-break feature.
All in all, you get "real" Office apps on your iPad, working as you'd expect -- mostly.
There are a few flaws. One is that you cannot move documents within your folder hierarchy from CloudOn, although you can delete and rename files from its file manager. To move files, you'll need to use the Dropbox or Box app on your iPad. The other flaw is the lack of UI sizing controls. The Office apps' menu items and ribbon bar icons are a bit too small to be tapped reliably on the iPad's screen, and there's no way to change their size in CloudOn. Windows and Office are designed for large monitors and mice, neither found on an iPad.
I'm also concerned that CloudOn is only available as a free service. No company can survive by giving its wares away, so I wonder what price I'll ultimately have to pay to use CloudOn. Businesses shouldn't grow dependent on CloudOn until its real price is clear.
I'm not a big fan of running Windows or Mac OS X on an iPad or Android tablet, as the different environments often don't mesh well. I view such desktop virtualization as a last-ditch option.
But CloudOn's decent iOS integration shows that desktop virtualization doesn't have to be a "when nothing else works" option. Most iPad road warriors should install CloudOn. Even if you use iWork or Quickoffice, there are some things these apps cannot do that Office can, and the ability to get the native Office apps lets you have your iOS cake and Microsoft Office too.
This article, "Finally! An Office cloud service for iPad worth using," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.
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