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Why desktop virtualization software and mobile devices shouldn't mix

Desktop virtualization software delivers centrally managed Windows desktops to multiple device types, but on the small screens of smartphones and tablets it can be more painful than helpful.

The ability to run a work desktop from anywhere in the world is a compelling use case for many people, and desktop virtualization software has long been a tool of choice to get line of business applications and data into the hands of workers. The office is no longer the only workplace; today's work environments include home offices, hotels, coffee shops and pretty much anywhere else with an Internet connection. Enter the mobile consumer devices of today: Apple's iPad, Android tablets, and the like. It seems like a logical progression for organizations to use desktop virtualization software to deliver legacy systems to smaller, more mobile

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form factors.

The problems with mobile desktop virtualization

More on desktop virtualization software

Guide to desktop virtualization software and virtual desktop management

Overcoming software licensing issues: Desktop virtualization projects

Software as a Service vs. desktop virtualization solutions

Here's the rub: The desktop virtualization world focuses nearly 100% on x86-based Windows applications, and the requisite user interface is a keyboard and mouse. But mobile devices predominantly run iOS and Android on ARM processors, with a solely touch-based interface. Displays on a typical Windows laptop or ultrabook start at 13 inches in size, and most can dock to and access even larger displays. Tablet display sizes range from 10 to 7 inches. Consequently, running a Windows desktop or application on a mobile device often results in a usability death spiral where users must excessively pan to see missing parts of the screen, or pinch and zoom to access dialog boxes or radio buttons.

Windows desktop apps are not inherently optimized to work on mobile devices, but there is emerging hope in this area. Citrix Systems released the XenApp Mobility Pack, which makes published Windows desktops more touch-friendly. It simplifies mouse gestures for touch-based interfaces, increases the size of desktop icons and makes the venerable Windows start menu more navigable. VMware has announced plans for similar user interface virtualization technology, through its Project AppShift.

This technology is a start, but it doesn't really begin to address the non-native experience of actually using a traditional desktop application on a mobile device. Microsoft's new Windows 8 and Windows RT operating systems and Surface tablet feature traditional business applications, and when/if Office for iOS and Android becomes available, that may reduce the need for desktop virtualization on those devices.

Another often overlooked factor: Even in our cellular- and Wi-Fi-immersed world, there are going to be times when users cannot establish connectivity. Offline tablet and smartphone virtualization are a pipe dream today. There are offline desktop virtualization software options, of course, but they are for traditional PCs or Macs.

Desktop virtualization software alternatives

Until legacy apps become more mobile-friendly, businesses should consider device-native applications. These apps help in the offline use case and are designed specifically for touch-based user interfaces. IT may not have as much control over these apps, but products such as MokaFive for iOS and WatchDox offer secure corporate data access. 

When faced with no other option, it's not a bad idea to use desktop virtualization software on tablets and smartphones. When a tablet is the only device available, and access to corporate systems is necessary, a virtual desktop is a nice thing to have handy. Just don't fool yourself: It's not equivalent to having a laptop with a keyboard and mouse.

New mobile hardware has the potential to change the landscape of how employees work. Avoid forcing the square peg of desktop virtualization into a round mobility hole.

This was first published in November 2012

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