The service and app debuted at the CES 2012. The principle behind OnLive Desktop is simple: you sign up for a free account with them and download the free iPad app, after which you can access a Windows 7 virtual machine on your iPad. This environment is full Windows 7, although it is structured primarily to allow you to run three full Microsoft Office apps to work on documents.
Firing up OnLive Desktop on the iPad 2 presents a full-screen Windows 7 desktop, with access to Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. These are the full Windows Office apps, running in a virtual Windows 7 environment on the company's servers. The apps and the Windows 7 environment makes good use of the touch interface on the iPad, including an onscreen keyboard.
My Bluetooth keyboard is fully supported by OnLive, so working in Office on the iPad is just like working on a Windows laptop. There are occasional network problems, but most of the time performance has been quite good.
What makes this service and iPad app so unique is that it allows you to run Windows and Microsoft Office, even if you don't own either one. The free service gives you full access to the Office apps, and up to 2 GB of free document storage. Paid service with greater storage capacity is in the works for those who need more space.
Using Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint in OnLive Desktop is just like using them in Windows, because that's what you are doing. The iPad 2 is just the window into the OnLive system. This review was written using OnLive and it has worked just like a native iPad app.
When you try OnLive Desktop, the first thing you note is how touch-friendly the Office ribbon is with the big buttons. It is actually a joy to use on the iPad, between tapping the ribbon controls to make things happen and entering text with the keyboard. You must upload and download files through the web site for OnLive, as there is no mechanism for doing that within the iPad app. That works fine, and allows you to download/upload the docs to Dropbox if you have that on your iPad.
In addition to the three Office apps, OnLive gives access to Windows Media Player for streaming video, although this points out the network speed (or lack thereof) on a consistent basis. There is also access to the Microsoft Touch Pack apps which work well on the iPad. Building a photo collage using Microsoft Surface Collage is particularly delightful using touch.
OnLive Desktop may not be the perfect solution for everyone, but for those needing occasional access to Office it is a great fit. The price is right, and it is as easy to use as working with any app on the iPad screen. I have used other solutions on the iPad to access Windows systems, but this is hands-down the easiest. There is nothing to set up on the virtual machine side, with not even a Windows system required.