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Fat Apps Are Where It's At

Virtual desktop Infrastructure (VDI to you and me), which presents a desktop to an end user, is seeing something of a revival lately due to the increased penetration of mobile tablets. Why lug a laptop around that has a short battery life and takes forever to load when you can use a lighter, more responsive tablet? If you can get your desktop on your tablet, all the better, right? No. Not at all. More over, server-based desktop applications, such as those served from the likes of Citrix XenApp and VMware ThinApp, or just the UI components. We need need fat apps.

There are a few reasons why, not the least of which is that server- or cloud-based apps tend to require constant connectivity and the desktop metaphor doesn’t exactly scale well to mobile devices, including larger tablets. That’s not to say that there is no place for VDI or thin apps in the mobile space. They serve as a stopgap for those organizations that need specialized access, but VDI and thin apps on mobile devices are not the end game. I have been accused (you know who you are, Todd) of being behind the puck. Just the opposite: Sticking to desktop metaphors is sticking to the past. Here’s what needs to happen.

Let’s Talk Connectivity
Before we can have thin anything—meaning the UI is local but the processing and storage are remote--we need to have universal wireless access. Frankly, I don’t really care if it is cellular or Wi-Fi, but the device needs to be connected, period. Guess what? That means cellular data for the foreseeable future, because cellular data has a much wider footprint than Wi-Fi.

Whether I am traveling around town or across the country, I have zero guarantee of having Wi-Fi wherever I end up. The likelihood of getting Wi-Fi is also nil, since I don’t subscribe to any of the Wi-Fi subscription services. But even if I did subscribe to a Wi-Fi service, there isn’t any guarantee that my service will be available wherever I happen to be. On my last trip, I was visiting a vendor and its guest Wi-Fi was down for the day. (I won't name the vendor since stuff breaks and I don’t want to needlessly embarrass them). That meant no network access for my colleagues' laptops. This happens more than you think. I had my Droid, they had iPhones, we got email. The point is we expected Wi-Fi to be available and it wasn’t. Luckily, my colleagues had fat apps and local storage to work on; otherwise, they’d have been out of luck.

That leaves cellular data. What is interesting with VDI and thin app technologies is that they tend to be pretty efficient on the network. They can tolerate some loss, delay and jitter, and they don’t necessarily needs tons of bandwidth. Remote apps and desktops work pretty well over cellular data. However, with data caps being imposed with very stiff overage penalties, living on a cellular data plan for VDI and thin apps will be very, very expensive. That’s a business issue, and you might decide that thin apps are important enough to pay the premium. At any rate, if you are relying on wireless connections to access apps or data, you better have access when and where you need it--or an alternative plan.

Let’s Talk UI
The desktop metaphor uses windows to present applications that can be expanded, collapsed, overlapped or hidden. We use mice and track pads to interact with the UI, and a whole host of things have grown out of those inputs. Hovering can trigger a popup, and right clicks, middle clicks, single clicks and double clicks perform context-sensitive actions. Advanced mice have more buttons that can be customized to interact with the desktop, and track pads with hot areas make moving around on the screen easier. Mice work for desktops in areas where you have the space to put them. Ever see someone struggle with a mouse while cradling a laptop on their lap? The UI and the actions that are triggered are based on what is available. I am not saying the current desktop metaphor is the best way to interact, but it is what we have, and it works well enough. The desktop metaphor does not translate well to a mobile device because they are limited to how screens are displayed (one at a time) and how we interact with them (touch, multitouch, long-press, and so on).

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