While Microsoft and its hardware partners race to deliver a suitable Windows 8-based tablet experience by the end of 2012, the innovators at OnLive have accomplished something previously thought impossible: They've brought the current version of Windows--and Office, and Adobe Reader and Flash--to the iPad today. And it works surprisingly well.

No, you're not going to want to replace your existing PC rig for an iPad with this software anytime soon. And no, it doesn't work well, or at all, unless you have an excellent Internet connection. (OnLive recommends 4G cellular, minimum, or Wi-Fi.) But as a PC companion, an iPad plus the free OnLive Desktop, or the low-cost Desktop Plus, is a perfectly viable solution for many people.

Here's what's happening.

In mid-2011, OnLive launched its first service, an innovative cloud-based video game service that works with Windows-based PCs, Macs, some Android smart phones, the iPad and some Android tablets, and a handful of other connected devices and the company's own low-cost set-top box. Dubbed the OnLive Game Service, this solution requires a decent Internet connection (5 Mbps or higher is recommended), and thus works best with cable- or fiber-optic-based systems. But what it delivers is incredible: Xbox quality graphics and sound.

OnLive Game ServiceĀ  is basically a proof of concept for cloud computing, and if you've experienced it, you've no doubt marveled that it can deliver modern, 3D games--like Assassin's Creed Revelations, Batman Arkham City, Saints Row the Third, and DRIVER--to devices that have no business providing that level of fidelity. The key to OnLive's service, of course, is its cloud-based back-end. All of the heavy lifting is done at the company's data centers, and the only processing that needs to happen on the client side relates to the display and the controls.

The OnLive Game Service includes another innovation worth noting. In addition to foregoing an expensive video game console, the service also foregoes the need to actually buy the games you play. Yes, you can fork over $20 to $50 to "buy" an OnLive game. But you can also test drive games for free and, best of all, rent games for set time periods (like 3 or 5 days), or subscribe to the whole library.

If the OnLive Game Service has an issue, it's that it requires a very low latency connection. Otherwise, you'll experience lag, where the in-game movements of the character or vehicle you're controlling doesn't respond as immediately as you'd want. So it's best to experiment with a few game trials before paying up.

Regardless, the OnLive Game Service is pretty amazing, and OnLive has done a credibly aggressive job of marketing the service to gamers. But what we're here to discuss today is a semi-related but potentially even more impressive set of services that goes by the name OnLive Desktop. OnLive released the free version of this service last month, amazing virtually everyone who tried it out. But now there's the first of what promises to be several paid versions of the service too. And, folks, this stuff is damn impressive.

OnLive Desktop is essentially a remote desktop solution for the iPad, though versions are coming for other clients as well, including, yes, Windows-based PCs, Macs, and other devices (including the company's inexpensive game-based set-top box, the OnLive Game System). But unlike existing iPad-based remote desktop solutions, you don't connect to your own PC via OnLive Desktop, you connect to a virtual machine running in OnLive's data center. In fact, this is arguably one of the service's key benefits: Yes, you can use Windows via this service, but you never need to update it, clean it of viruses, or perform other housekeeping chores. OnLive does all that for you.

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OnLive Desktop

The free version of OnLive Desktop doesn't just provide a blank Windows desktop, though. It also provides Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2010, as well as all the basic Windows applications like Paint, Calculator, Windows Media Player, and the like. It includes the Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7, which includes a handful of fun touch-based games and entertainment titles. And it comes with 2 Gb of free online storage so that documents and other files you edit and create in the cloud will be available at any time from your real PC, or from other devices. In fact, it's automatic: Your files are synced automatically with your Documents folder on the PC.

Yay!

Combine this solution with a Bluetooth keyboard and, yes, a decent Internet connection and you've got the makings of a decent little productivity solution, and likely all of the PC-based computing power that many users will ever need. (Mouse activities occur via touch, and while I've not tried this, I suspect one of those popular iPad styluses would work even better. Kudos to OnLive, however, for enabling Windows 7's single click mode so you don't have to double-tap the screen to launch applications or open folders.)

Since launching OnLive Desktop last month, OnLive has added another useful application to the service: Adobe Reader, providing full Windows-based compatibility with PDF files.

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Real Windows on a real iPad

To recap, OnLive Desktop already provides, today, what so many iPad users--and, more important, potential iPad users--really want: Windows and the most crucial Office applications. And not cheap replacements, but the real thing. Did I mention this was free? It is. Seriously, if you have an iPad, go check it out. Now.

I highlighted OnLive Desktop as a software pick of the week on Windows Weekly a few weeks back, but since then, OnLive has announced and delivered the first of what looks to be at least four paid services. And this one isn't just better, it's markedly better. It's inexpensive too.

Dubbed OnLive Desktop Plus, the paid version of this solution costs just $4.99 a month. In includes everything from the free version and adds a number of useful features, including full Adobe Flash capabilities and a web acceleration feature that promises that the connection between the remote PC you're using and the Internet is a full 1 Gbps. Yes, 1 Gbps. That's hundreds of times faster than most cable Internet connections. It's a huge difference.

As with the company's gaming service, OnLive Desktop and Desktop Plus do all of the heavy lifting on the backend, in OnLive's data center. So all that's transmitted between the iPad and the service is the display, of course, and your input. If you can accept that the OnLive Game Service actually works pretty damn well for 3D games, imagine for a moment how much easier it is for the company to deliver the dramatically less resource intensive Windows desktop.

And sure enough, it works surprisingly well. No, you're not going to play Windows-based games over this service, but full screen HD YouTube videos work perfectly, and for basic productivity tasks, like writing Word documents, performance is absolutely acceptable. In fact, its arguably Windows 7's lack of touch friendliness that holds this thing back the most.

I don't think Microsoft has much to fear from OnLive Desktop, at least not yet. But for those users who have already chosen the iPad but miss some Windows functionality, this is a perfectly viable solution, and even the paid version is inexpensive enough to recommend wholeheartedly. OnLive says that more versions of the service are coming, including a Pro version for $9.99 a month that adds 50 GB of online storage and the "ability to customize OnLive Desktop with additional PC applications," which means that, yes, you can install virtually any application you want. (OnLive will actively prevent malware and the like, of course.) And an Enterprise version will provide IT-managed accounts for businesses and other organizations.

It's exciting stuff. But even as it stands today, OnLive Desktop and OnLive Desktop Plus are impressive, innovative achievements. It's no reason to get an iPad, but if you've already taken the plunge, you need to check out these services. Highly recommended.