Can Windows Play Well on the iPad?

A new Citrix SDK helps Windows software developers solve a big problem: How to extend desktop apps to the iPad and iPhone in a way that doesn't turn off mobile users.

All those iPads racing into the enterprise must maneuver around a tricky corner: getting Windows desktop apps to run on iPads without wrecking the user experience. Sure, Citrix virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI, can render entire Windows desktops and their apps on the iPad—but not always well.

The problem, of course, is that Windows desktop apps were never meant to run on a 10-inch touchscreen tablet with no mouse and physical keyboard (even less so with a 3.5-inch touchscreen iPhone). Yet workers need these apps to do their jobs.

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A mouse-driven Windows desktop app...
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... gets separated with touch features on the iPhone.

We're not talking about simple iPad apps such as Quickoffice and Documents To Go that replicate Microsoft Office, either.

Companies, even entire industries, might rely on a single legacy Windows app. At hospitals across the country, for instance, clinicians depend on the Cerner medical app, which doesn't work well on the iPad. Then there's the plethora of custom-built Windows apps in which companies have invested much time and training. These apps often require a virtualized desktop environment to run on an iPad.

But CIOs argue that Windows apps running in a virtualized environment on an iPad deliver a terrible user experience. That is, iPad users have to pinch and zoom field screens, input data with finger taps and the virtual keyboard, and then repeat this maddening process over and over.

The end result: Employees use Citrix on the iPad as a last resort, CIOs say.

This is one of the reasons keeping iPads at bay at Seattle Children's Hospital. "The EMR (electronic medical record) apps are unwieldy on the iPad," says CTO Wes Wright.

Slideshow: 15 Ways iPad Goes to Work

One of the leading providers of virtual Windows desktops for the iPad is Citrix with its Citrix Receiver app. Benjamin Baer, senior director of product marketing for the Receiver and Gateways group at Citrix, says he is aware of the usability problem.

While Windows app developers ultimately have to step up to the plate and retool their Windows apps for the iPad, Citrix is taking steps to solve the usability problem. CIO.com's Tom Kaneshige talked with Baer about Citrix's role in helping software developers turn this corner.

As iPads increase their enterprise footprint, CIOs say users complain about the poor virtual Windows experience on the iPad. What can be done about this?

Baer: The basic thing we provide is the ability to get to legacy Windows apps using non-Windows devices. We deliver the ability to virtualize Windows apps and, of course, Windows desktops on an iPad. At its base level, a lot of the criticisms are well founded in so much as Windows apps and Windows desktops were never designed for touch capabilities and small screen real estate.

With the Citrix Receiver on the tablet device, we primarily focus on the app rather than the desktop. We can deliver desktops, but as you point out the UI (user interface) is so mouse or cursor driven. Most people would rather have access to their Windows apps, not necessarily the entire desktop.

Are Windows app developers tweaking their software for the iPad?

Baer: Two weeks ago, we announced a new SDK (software developer kit) that basically sits in front of XenApp in the virtual app delivery infrastructure. This allows end-users, customers, system integrators and partners to write extensions that reformat, repaint the actual Windows app to be more native to the device it's running on. It also allows developers to leverage things like GPS, accelerometer, cameras.

For example, Outlook was never designed for those form factors. But we can actually re-screen the Outlook interface to look more like a native app. Bigger buttons. Screen wipes. It's something we created internally.

We expect a lot of our ISVs (independent software developers), including medical app ISVs, to really leverage the SDK and change the way their traditional Windows apps are viewed through Citrix Receiver and on these alternative devices. We're just now starting to see some traction.

What about tweaking for the iPhone?

Baer: Because of the iPhone's very small screen real estate, it's indeed a fallback. It's something I can use if I really need it, but I'm not going to use it every day. We've found with smartphones that people like to know it's there and will do the zoom and pan if they need to.

Prior to three weeks ago, we had specific receivers for iPad and iPhone. We've since revamped our Receiver for iOS 5.0. It has a completely new look and feel and access to apps. Much more tuned for the iPad experience, or rather the iOS experience. A lot of our primary development work is focused on those tablet use cases. The SDK is a good example of this.

The ISV may be somewhat reluctant to make major modifications to the UI, so we try to make it work by providing the touch capabilities, such as the ability to move the cursor around with your finger. But at the end of the day, ISVs still need to make modifications to their applications long term to support the changing set of use cases.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Tom at tkanshige@cio.com

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