There are several perspectives on the iPad as a productivity tool. Some knowledge workers thrive on a suite of native apps; others can't really get comfortable within a text or code-based workflow without a legitimate keyboard and mouse. The "third way" of iPad productivity provides a hybrid environment: familiar Office apps or remote access to existing computers, with varying degrees of customization to incorporate the touch UI atop the traditional desktop.
We've previously talked about Onlive Desktop, one of the major players in the remote gaming and desktop SaaS space (which seems to have struck a conciliatory tone on Windows licensing by moving from Win7 to Windows Server for the underlying tech). Today, the first major version update of CloudOn, one of the primary alternatives to Onlive and other "full Windows" tools, is hitting the App Store.
The original free iPad app from CloudOn provided users in the US, UK and Canada with a straightforward way to create and edit Microsoft Office documents without Office, and without their own PC. The back end CloudOn servers plug into your Dropbox account to give you near-immediate access to your files for touchups or extended editing sessions. What you see on the screen is a remote session, optimized for quick transmission across the Internet to you. It works great on WiFi, acceptably on 3G and shows snappy response on a new 4G iPad as well.
In the new 2.0 version of the app, the cloud storage options have been extended to include Box.com for personal or enterprise users. CloudOn 2.0 also adds Adobe Reader to the app suite, permitting iPad users to view 3D content or fill-in PDF forms on the fly. A universal image viewer and full outbound email support round out the new feature list.
Instead of making the iPad into a virtual Windows desktop, CloudOn masks the filesystem and other apps to deliver an Office-only experience. You want Word, you get Word -- and nothing else. This no-distractions, one app at a time model can track closer to the native iPad experience of "app immersion." While the lack of native copy/paste and autocorrect does slow things down a bit, I found that I could be pretty effective while typing into CloudOn's apps, especially with a Bluetooth external keyboard.
Since you're using "real" Office, albeit remotely, some of the key features normally absent from iPad productivity apps are there for you. Ryan Faas keyed in on one of those features: Track Changes and comment support in Word, which has made CloudOn very popular with members of the legal profession.
Last week I met with Milind Gadekar, the CEO and founder of CloudOn, and got to hear a bit of his company's vision for the future of distributed work. He told me that his team forsees a continuing fragmentation of the computing landscape, with multiple OS platforms and devices talking to multiple storage providers. The way to enable productivity, he suggested, is to provide a functional nexus of three key components: your files, your apps and your collaborators.
While some successful companies are building the infrastructure for files and collaborators and then laying the applications over that with third party integrations (like Box.com), Gadekar and his team decided to go at the problem from the applications vertex first. Given that there are a lot of very capable and popular storage solutions in the market, this seems like a good play.
In developing CloudOn, Gadekar and his programmers are keenly aware that the iPad is being positioned as a productivity tool even though it doesn't have the major productivity app suite that most people use everyday: Microsoft Office. While native app vendors have the freedom to create novel interfaces that leverage iOS's touchscreen UI directly, CloudOn's emphasis is on making the subtle adjustments and accommodations that let Office apps (and eventually more mouse-based apps) work smoothly without a mouse and keyboard. Hiding the Windows desktop from the user was the first step in drastically simplifying that legacy UI.
As CloudOn expands its suite of available applications (and perhaps makes a move to other access approaches from its current iPad-only incarnation), we can expect to see some revenue models evolve. For now, though, it's a free service and a great way to get your feet wet with remote productivity apps on the iPad.