I’ve spent a few weeks with Parallels Access, a remote
access application that allows you to access your PC or Mac desktop from an
iPad. If you’re a Mac user, you’re likely familiar with Parallels’ main
product, a virtual machine application that allows you to run a Windows desktop
on your Mac.

The tablet holy
grail

Since the first tablets landed in the hands of users, many
have asked how they could run their standard desktop applications on the
devices. For the popular iPad in particular, users quickly started asking for
tools like PowerPoint and Outlook. While there are native applications to deal
with these files and tasks, they lack the deep functionality of their desktop
equivalents. For Enterprise IT, putting enterprise software on mobile devices,
without having to invest significant resources in developing a mobile-native
version, seemed like an obvious benefit.

In the short term, remote desktop tools like GoToMyPC on the
lower end and enterprise-grade solutions from companies like Citrix allowed
users to view their PC desktops on tablet devices. Unfortunately, tiny icons
and UI elements designed for big screens and mouse pointers don’t translate
well to fingers. More
recently, enterprise players have combined virtualization technologies with
remote access, suggesting that a few servers deliver hundreds of end-user
desktops to anything from a tablet to the modern equivalent of a dumb terminal,
with UI optimizations for each client platform. Parallels Access tries to offer
a solution that fits between these two extremes, and it’s largely successful.

Bridging the gap

It’s tempting to lump Parallels Access in with the half
dozen other remote desktop applications, but the application strives to bring
iPad-style user interaction into desktop applications. Open Parallels Access on
your iPad, and rather than using the Windows Start button or Mac OS X Dock,
each with dozens of tiny icons to launch applications, your list of
applications is presented in an iPad-like grid, as seen below:

 

 

Launched applications are resized for the tablet, and
superfluous UI elements such as the taskbar and start menu are removed, limiting
the focus to a single application window. Rather complex design applications
like those from Adobe are usable, and you can even launch and interact with
virtual machines, as seen in the next two screenshots:

 

 

 

 

A launcher lets you quickly switch between running
applications, and iPad gestures like the magnifying glass and finger-friendly
cut and paste function are available in most desktop applications, as seen in the below screenshot:

 

 

Once you disconnect from your desktop, after a few
resolution changes and some gyrations, Parallels Access returns your desktop to
a reasonably normal state, returning screen resolution and window size to their
previous settings. I won’t belabor the functionality of the application here,
as there’s a detailed review already posted to TechRepublic; rather, what’s most interesting for
the enterprise is that Parallels Access presents the first viable and relatively
low-cost way to deliver desktop applications to tablet users.

A great transition to
a virtual future

At the enterprise level, owning and maintaining huge fleets
of desktops and laptops is making less and less sense, and the impacts of
virtualization technologies on the data center are now moving toward the
desktop. Companies such as Citrix, Microsoft, and EMC’s VMware are already
delivering products that move the end-user desktop to a virtual machine
infrastructure, consolidating computing power and maintenance into a central
location. This has the obvious benefit of allowing a diverse pool of client
devices to access a standard, usually Windows-based desktop image. A
personally-owned Mac can happily run a secured corporate desktop alongside
native Mac OS design applications, just as a mobile phone or tablet can access
those same applications. The obvious problem with this virtual future is that
it requires a fairly large infrastructure investment, and a fundamental shift
in everything from how IT deploys and manages end-user devices to how users
“turn on” and start working with their corporate applications.

Parallels Access comes with a subscription-based price tag,
which may be frustrating and still unfamiliar for consumers, but makes sense
for enterprises — especially those that might consider the application to test
the waters of desktop virtualization on tablets before investing in the
infrastructure to do a complete implementation. Even for a dozen or so mobile
users who would like to get desktop applications on their iPad, Parallels
Access is easy enough to install and configure that you can trust most end
users to install and configure the application themselves.

Broadly, mobility and end-user computing are at an inflection
point. I doubt desktop computing will survive in its current state, and users
are demanding more functionality from tablet-like devices. One way to quickly
get that functionality to the iPad without investing in infrastructure or a
slew of new and relatively untested technologies is a tool like Parallels
Access. You get the usability enhancements missing from traditional remote
desktop tools, easy installation, and reasonable pricing without a major
overhaul of your IT infrastructure.