It's been two years since Chromebooks running Google's Chrome OS appeared on store shelves. So far, Google's plan - to turn your Web browser into an operating system and websites into desktop-app replacements - does not appear to be catching on
But what if instead of accessing just websites, Chromebooks connected to a Windows desktop that lived in the cloud? Instead of having the Windows OS and all your apps stored locally, what if Microsoft hosted your Windows desktop on its servers, allowing you to access your personal "PC" from any device?
The idea is not so far-fetched.
Enterprises can already offer virtualized Windows desktop access to their employees. There are also a few third-party services like OnLive Desktop and CloudOn that can deliver the Windows desktop and/or Office apps to your tablets and other devices. You can even create some home-brew situations to access your Windows desktop remotely.
Check out this demo showing an HP remote server using Microsoft's RemoteFX technology to render the PC game Crysis to a low-powered client machine with an ARM processor.
Microsoft may reportedly roll out another virtualization solution that is essentially a "Windows desktop as a service." The service, aimed at enterprises and codenamed Mohoro, would offer virtualized Windows desktops and apps running on Microsoft's Azure cloud infrastructure, according to ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley who has numerous sources inside Microsoft.
The new project is still in early development, Foley says, and may not roll out for some time.
If Mohoro does become a real service for enterprises, would it eventually roll out to consumers in some form? "Ultimately, Microsoft will provide Windows as SaaS, or software as a service," says Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. "It's just the next, natural step in the evolution of software distribution. (Microsoft's) latest Office 365 is a real good indicator of where Windows is going."
The perks of such a system are pretty tempting. For one thing, it would remove pain of transferring your files and settings whenever you buy a new computer. You could just purchase a new laptop, sign in with your Microsoft account, and all your files, settings, and apps would be there waiting for you.
It would also be a boon for Windows RT users who are stuck with an essentially useless desktop incapable of running most traditional Windows desktop programs. A cloud-based Windows would allow RT users to run anything they wanted on their device.
Microsoft, as Moorhead points out, is already moving in this direction with Office 365 Home Premium, not to mention Windows 8.
With Office 365 you can download Office on up to 5 PCs you own, as well as temporarily stream a version of Office 365 called Office on Demand to other PCs. Office 365's SkyDrive integration also encourages you to save all your documents to the cloud so you can access them from anywhere and collaborate with others.
On Windows 8, your Microsoft account allows you to sync your personal settings across multiple devices including the lock screen, desktop theme, and some modern UI app settings.
A consumer-grade version of Windows in the cloud might also remove the hassles of upgrading your machine. When you subscribe to Office 365 Home Premium, for example, you are automatically guaranteed to have the latest versions of Microsoft's Office suite--from feature additions to complete app overhauls.
Presumably, a cloud-based version of Windows would be offered as an annual subscription with similar upgrade benefits to Office 365. Windows 365 Home Premium, anyone?
Pouring cold water on the virtual PC
But not everyone is convinced such a scheme would work.
"I am very skeptical that such an initiative would gather momentum outside of the commercial market," says David Daoud, IDC's research director for PCs and Green IT. "Consumers (individuals and households) are not so open to the complexity and steep learning curve of such "virtualized" platforms."
Daoud argues that for consumers "the cloud [is] often understood as storage and a place where pre-built applications are run, from accessing social media sites and streaming services." (IDC and PCWorld are both owned by International Data Group.)
Brett Waldman, IDC's research manager for client virtualization software, agrees with Daoud. Waldman also doubts Microsoft would provide "virtual instances of Windows client operating systems." More likely, says Waldman, is an extension of Microsoft's RemoteApp technology that allows enterprises to publish specific applications to corporate devices. Foley's report does quote one Microsoft source as saying Mohoro would be a like hosted version of RemoteApp.
Not even in the ballpark, yet
Even if Microsoft did give remote access for consumers a shot, it may be a while before a virtualized version of Windows would be viable, especially for users in the United States. The problem, says Moorhead, is a remote version of Windows would require "a very fast and reliable Internet connection." This is something that many Americans don't have at home.
But a remote Windows desktop could start as an add-on service, Moorhead argues. Under this scheme, you could access your Windows desktop from anywhere for those times when you're not at home or only have an iPad nearby.
If Microsoft could get it to work properly, a subscription-based remote Windows desktop offers an enticing scenario. Well, at least for technology buffs.
As Daoud and Waldman point out, the idea of a cloud-based version of Windows that relies on a fast Internet connection may not appeal to most home users. You got to admit, however, that a Windows Cloud OS sounds a lot more interesting than Chrome OS.