Coming Soon: Desktops Hosted On The Cloud, Usable Anywhere

A new video technology quietly announced late last week could mark a landmark change in how apps are deployed on PCs, tablets and smartphones for years to come - and also have big ramifications on how companies like Apple do business.

You wouldn't think that the technology launched by the Mozilla Foundation and graphic-rendering vendor Otoy on Friday would be all that big a deal. After all, the software, which is known as a codec, was originally designed to allow for the playback of videos on HTML5 pages within a browser without plug-ins.

That alone is pretty cool, from a consumer's point of view. There's are still videos out there, such as those encoded with the H.264 format, that need a special plug-in to be viewed, thanks to the patents tied to the H.264 specification. Live TV and HD video can be viewed with any HTML5 browser that can support WebGL (hold that thought).

But the other thing the new codec, known as ORBX.js, features is much, much more significant: it also enables steaming of desktop applications. An application (say, Microsoft Office) could be hosted on a company's server and then used by any employee who logs in to the application. It would not matter what operating system they were using (Windows, OS X or Linux) or even what platform (phone, tablet or desktop), because the browser would be the only thing that matters.

"This is not just remote desktop tech, or X11 reborn via JavaScript]," [blogged Mozilla Foundation CTO Brendan Eich, "Many local/remote hybrid computation schemes are at hand today, e.g., a game can do near-field computing in the browser on a beefy client while offloading lower [level of detail] work to the [game processing unit] cloud."

When Cloud Becomes The Platform

Using streaming video to deploy remote desktops is not new, of course, this is pretty much the way Logmein does it with their remote desktop technology. But as good as Logmein and other RD vendors are, they still use a dedicated client and the speed of the remote setup can be hampered by the power of the source desktop as well as the limitations of bandwidth.

If the application were to be hosted in the cloud with more resources, as Eich suggests, then only bandwidth would become a limit to application performance. In fact, if ORBX.js performs as promised, you won't even need a "beefy" client, as Eich says we have now - nearly all of the processing work will be done in the cloud and streamed to the waiting browser client.

Streaming apps, if this technology works, would then represent a big change for end users and even a potential cost savings - if the bulk of the processing power is situated in the cloud, then hardware requirements for end-user devices can stay where they are or even be lowered.

Another big change - if all you need is a decent screen and an interface to connect to applications, you could host your entire work/home environment in the cloud and access it from any compatible device at any time. It could be a full version on the desktop or laptop, and perhaps a scaled-down version on your tablet or smartphone, but the apps and your data would always be there, on any of your machines.

Walled Garden? What Walled Garden?

If applications can be delivered effectively through this kind of enhanced video streaming, currently that also puts Apple and Microsoft at a strong disadvantage against competitors like Google and Blackberry, especially in the mobile space.

Recall the requirements for the JavaScript-based ORBX.js: any HTML5 browser that can support WebGL.

As it stands right now, the Safari browser on the iOS mobile platform does not support WebGL at all (except for iAd developers) - and on OS X, Safari only offers partial support for the standard (if the user has up-to-date video drivers). Internet Explorer does not support WebGL at all, either.

Android is a little tricker: neither the native Android browser or Chrome for Android support WebGL, but Firefox for Android does. As of BlackBerry 10, the BlackBerry browser will support WebGL, too.

This would mean that Android and BlackBerry users could run cloud-based apps on their devices right now, while Windows Phone, Windows 8, Windows RT and iOS users would be out of luck.

That's probably no accident, either, since any application that streams in through browser is one the operating system vendor can't monetize. In other words, Apple and Microsoft won't get their app store cut from apps that are streamed.

That this is a deliberate choice on the part of Apple and Microsoft seems likely. Even Google has yet to support WebGL on its mobile-device browsers, possibly for the same reasons.

But given that Google's Chrome browser is all in for WebGL, Google could still reap the benefits of cloud-based applications soon. If that proves a success, or if BlackBerry's WebGL bet pays off, then it won't be a long wait for the Android browsers to come around to WebGL.

At which point, it will be anyone's guess if Microsoft and Apple will jump on board, too. There are already rumors that Internet Explorer 11 will support WebGL, so Microsoft may be on its way to enabling cloud-based streaming apps.

Cloud applications will never supplant native apps - connectivity issues and security concerns will make sure of that - but it's a future that looks pretty cool for users who want to use their applications and data any where, any time.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.