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.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.