Fat Apps Are Where It's At

Virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI, 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

Mike Fratto

November 23, 2011

7 Min Read
Network Computing logo

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 ConnectivityBefore 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 UIThe 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).

Successful mobile apps have started to redefine how UIs are designed and how we interact with them, and I don’t think we have yet seen the big change in UI design that I sense is coming. (Voice commands are not the next big thing, but that is another topic.) Successful apps today strip out the cruft from the program, focusing on a few critical features that you need. Apps that are full of menu options, buttons and screens are simply poorly designed. There isn’t the screen real estate available on mobile devices--certainly not on phones--to populate menus and pull downs. On a tablet, the screen can be put to better use. But even doing something as simple as swiping to select text is difficult because it’s hard to be precise when your big, opaque finger gets in the way.

But that is how desktop apps are designed. Lots of features displayed for quick access because you have the room to do it while still providing enough screen space to write a document or work on a spreadsheet. Try using Excel as a thin app on your phone or tablet. See how long it takes for you to get frustrated. Take a look at the screen shot to the left. That’s just one column of a multicolumn spread sheet in Docs to Go. To use the sheet, I have to scroll around. Sure, I could do it in a pinch, but it’s not something I’d live on.

On Android (I don’t know about iOS), for most apps I can long press on the screen, select Share, and send the data, URL or whatever, to other apps. It’s easier than cutting and pasting, and often much more is shared. I probably can’t do that with a VDI or a thin app, which runs its own environment. There are many, many useful features like that which aren’t available.

When I hear people talk about mobile VDI—bringing the desktop to the mobile device—or thin apps on mobile, all I see is a stopgap between a desktop metaphor and a mobile metaphor. It’s a horrible decision because it simply doesn’t work well. By the way, a mobile metaphor on a desktop is just as bad. I give you Windows 8 Developer Preview as an example of a mobile UI that doesn't work on a desktop.

There is a transition period where there maybe a need to use VDI or thin apps on mobile. If you haven’t yet, check out the demonstration apps using Citrix Receiver, which I wrote about in 2009: Citrix Receiver On Android: Your Desktop Anywhere. It’s some pretty cool stuff, and Citrix did some really neat things to make the user experience palatable (VMware and Wyse, as well). But don’t think VDI or thin apps are a long-term solution.

What’s It Going To Take?If we want mobile apps that leverage remote storage (cloud, private, whatever), then the apps need to be designed to use them. We don’t need to carry old metaphors into the new world. We need new metaphors that take advantage of new capabilities. VMware ThinApp, and I believe XenApp, can cache local copies of apps so that you can use them while disconnected. That’s good, but at that point, why not have an app that is designed to take advantage of the device’s capabilities and merge seamlessly with how the user interacts with the device?

Storage systems need to be capable of seamlessly and reliably keeping data in synch with all connected devices and resolving conflicts intelligently. I need to know that the data is current, and I don’t want to have to think about it.

And we need a ubiquitous network to tie it all together. If we are going to rely on thin apps and VDI, then local application caching will only go so far. Without an available network to connect to, mobile uses will be hobbled.

Until those three problems are solved, fat apps will be required.

About the Author(s)

Mike Fratto

Former Network Computing Editor

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like


More Insights