Nivio has started beta tests of a Windows XP hosted desktop service, which it claims can stream a desktop to any compatible browser so you can remotely access Windows apps on Linux, a Mac, or even a handheld device.
The company hopes to follow the access-anywhere success of GoogleMail, Yahoo! and the like - but with access to real desktop software as well as email. It points out that a hosted desktop also lets you run the latest Windows apps even if your own system is not capable or compatible.
The Nivio service is hosted on replicated highly-available servers in data centres in Switzerland and New Delhi - Nivio is a subsidiary of a Swiss company, SMX iNet Global Services, and is the brainchild of SMX founder and former Imperial College London student Sachin Duggal. The company says that all user data is stored under Swiss data protection laws.
It lets you set up a new Windows desktop or replicate your existing one to Nivio and access it there afterwards, and can even print to your local printer. Nivio says it will run over as little as 128kbit/s, but warns that GPRS and 3G connections can be problematic because of their relatively high latency.
Desktops are hosted on Windows Server 2003 and VMware, and include a stack of free applications such as OpenOffice, Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, Google and Yahoo! instant messaging clients, Quicktime, and Adobe Reader. The various Microsoft Office apps are available too at extra cost, and while Nivio users cannot install their own apps, they can request that other programs be added to the supported list.
The Nivio desktop loads via an ActiveX control or a Java RDP applet. In brief tests, performance over a fast broadband connection seemed very good, though not quite as fast as running the same things locally. The ActiveX version was more robust - there were a few problems with Java resets crashing that connection - but both gave good results once we adjusted to the peculiarities of server-based computing, such as not using Alt-F4 to close a remote window as it closed the local window instead.
Of course, hosted desktops do have their down sides, the most obvious one being that they're not much use when you don't have an internet connection. Nivio does provide synchronisation tools, however, so you can keep the same files locally on your PC and on the remote service.
They are also not new, with limited-capacity Linux desktops available free from organisations such as Cosmopod and GoPC. However, hosted Windows desktops have been relatively expensive and aimed at business users - for example, TheOnDemandOffice, a Citrix-based scheme from Zumasys, is $129 per user per month, while Extrasys, which uses Citrix Metaframe and Softricity for app streaming, can cost more than £100 a month.
By comparison, Nivio says that once its service leaves beta users will get a desktop and 5GB of storage on a fully backed-up SAN for £7.99 a month, or £4.79 for students. In the meantime, would-be beta testers can sign up here - but are not guaranteed access. ®