Remote Desktop: A Mobile Killer App


This is one of those things I've been wanting to blog about for a while, but I discovered it well after I had stopped my previous blog. Last year, when I was still using Windows for my day-to-day use (I've been on Ubuntu since February and never been happier), I discovered that there was a Windows Terminal Services Client - otherwise known as Remote Desktop - for the Nokia 770/N800. You can find it here - it's truly a killer app for a web tablet, and I think, just about anything that fits in your pocket with VGA or better resolution. (My previous post about the mobile GUI made me remember I wanted to post about this.)

The reason it's amazing is that Remote Desktop is done incredibly well. It's been around for years, but I never bothered using it until last summer, thinking it was just like VNC, only just for Windows. It's much more than that because the quality is just so high - it feels just like you're working right on the other computer, with almost no change in the experience. It's sort of like exporting an X Session on Unix for you geeks out there, but even better because - and here's the killer part - you can take over an existing session from where ever you happen to be. This is amazing.

So wait, let me back up. Why is it better than VNC (and consequently, better than Apple's remote stuff which is based on the same tech)? Well, it doesn't take bitmap images of the screen and send them over the line, to be redrawn pixel by pixel, it actually just takes the windowing commands, again, just like X does. So say you're going from a large 1280x1024 resolution screen to a 800x480 screen like the Nokia 770? Well, the GUI just re-draws itself onto that screen perfectly - like you're using a tiny little Windows computer. VNC keeps the original resolution, so you end up having a viewport into a bigger screen, and have to scroll around the edges, and even then, the size and quality of the GUI is severely affected. Remote Desktop just makes the screen seem like a native app, and also sends over the sound as well, so you can, for example, play iTunes and hear your music anywhere.

The biggest factor, in my mind, however, is the fact that you can just take over a running session. This is something that X doesn't let you do out of the box (though there is a project out there that supposedly will let you, I've yet to get it to work). The idea is that you're on your computer, having various IM conversations, with various web pages open, and documents, and email, etc. And then you need to move away from your desk for a meeting or something, well, by using the 770 or the N800 to access your computer remotely, you take that context with you - never skipping a beat. And I'll tell you, as nice as some of the mobile browsers are - say Opera for the 770 - nothing compares with browsing while mobile using your PCs full-on browser back at your desk - it does all the work, and just sends you the results over the air, saving your handheld from having to churn through network connects and parse the markup itself. Trust me, as soon as you do it, you can't believe how nice it is.

This is obviously where Microsoft was going a while ago with their failed "Mira" devices - which were like tablet PCs, but were tied to a desktop. In retrospect, I can see now that the only problem with those devices was the size and cost. The concept was bang on - had they only decided to do that same thing in the form factor of the UMPCs, they would have had a hit on their hands. Who knows, maybe someone will dust it off and do it again.

So here's my thoughts on this: This is *such* a killer functionality, that I have to say I *really* miss it on my Linux box now. Being able to get sick of sitting in your chair while reading the web and taking your whole desktop with you over to the couch, or better yet, out to the porch, is just wonderful. (I work at home, but you can imagine how nice it would be to do something similar in an office environment, without having to lug a laptop). I can't believe that no one in Nokia has thought of pushing this as a major function of the N800 - I bet they would sell a ton of them by making them Web Tablets/PC Companions. Who needs a PDA when you've got access to Outlook right there.

There are some problems, of course, there's no integrated keypad in the RDesktop - I've gotten around this by pulling up the On-Screen Keyboard - but I can see a huge potential for a better app that includes the Maemo's virtual keyboard or has some apps installed on the PC as well to help with Pen based actions... maybe even the Tablet PC extensions. Regardless, it's still very usable even if you do it ad-hoc, but it would be even better with some dedicated applets helping out on the PC side.

One of the amusing things about my switch to Ubuntu was that it was spurred in part by my "upgrade" in January from Windows Media Center to Windows Vista Home Premium. I put upgrade in quotes because most things were supported, and there were some new functions, but Microsoft in their incredible wisdom, took out the Remote Desktop features!! I was *furious* as I used the 770 a lot for this exact purpose, but MS decided to put it only on "business" versions of their OS. So stupid. Between that and the rest of the Vista hardware problems, I decided that I might as well try Ubuntu if I'm going to be spending all this time trying to get hardware to work, and it ended up being a great decision... even if I can't use my 770 for remoting like I used to. The nice thing is that if you are on Windows Vista Home for whatever reason, there's a hack that will let you enable Remote Desktop which works great (that's how I got the image above).

Anyways, in summary, I think that taking your desktop session with you is definitely a mobile killer app - I can't believe there's not more effort in this area. I saw someone had created a VNC web app for the iPhone, but like I said it's really not the same as a dedicated remote desktop client. Hopefully as the mobile screens and resolutions get better, there will be more effort in this area, as its really cool stuff.


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