OnLive vs. Citrix: The Battle for the Virtual Desktop

Rob Enderle

Citrix is the dominant provider of virtual desktop technology. However, it is generally used not to provide the complete desktop but as a host to applications that, for whatever reason, IT doesn't want to run natively.


Citrix was purpose designed to provide a terminal-like PC experience and its technology goes back to its founding by an ex-IBM executive in 1989. OnLive is the new kid on the block. It was initially designed to host gaming and officially launched its first product in 2009 by an ex-Microsoft executive/rebel who had previously run WebTV, which acquired by Microsoft. Its new desktop video presentation is compelling because the iPad integration is impressive.


Both companies want to virtualize your PC, but both are vastly different.




Citrix by any measure is a mature enterprise company. The Citrix products are successfully resold by a large number of resellers and OEMs in a broad cross section of markets. They are rich in tools, security compliance and are fully mature. However, while more successful than prior alternatives, they've never really become a viable alternative to local code. Complaints that surround the offerings, mostly user-based, are based on performance and IT complaints would indicate that IT buyers often can't justify the cost.


Like Microsoft, whom it partners with closely and where it avoids competition, Citrix has increasingly focused on servers and in 2009 started offering advanced server management tools in a partnership with Microsoft. This defocused it from the desktop, likely due to a lack of strong competition there coupled with slow growth. The end result is that while it is still known for desktop virtualization, it seems, based on product set, to be mostly focused on systems management, application delivery, workflow, and remote PC access and management.




OnLive by any measure is not yet an enterprise company. It lacks the partnerships that Citrix enjoys but those partnerships, as Apple has been demonstrating most of last decade along with close IT alignment, have been devalued by a culture change we call the "consumerization of IT." This trend has employees and line managers, not IT, increasingly driving not only personal technology choices but the use of IT-like services into companies like Amazon where they can be purchased with credit cards. OnLive is a virtual desktop pure play. It developed a custom hardware/software/networking solution that can provide performance in line with a workstation to iPads and other consumer-driven devices.


Its latest release announced Microsoft Office and full Flash support for iPads and it is expected to embrace the rest of the tablet ecosystem shortly. It anticipates the massive improvements to wired and wireless networks that are expected in the next 5 years. It is much closer to a thin client pure play and the only hardware the company currently sells widely is an inexpensive set-top box that brings its PC experience to HD TVs.


Cost ranges from free to $4.99 a month per user for Office and basic storage. A more expensive plan likely costing twice this is anticipated for a larger software bundle, including workstation-class creation products.


Citrix vs. OnLive


These are vastly different companies with vastly different offerings. Citrix is largely based on concepts that drove the market prior to 2005 and does not reflect current user-driven initiatives. OnLive is exactly the opposite; it isn't yet mature and it is largely based on these same initiatives. In short, Citrix represents the past and OnLive the future. While IT generally lives in the past due to massive legacy code issues, increasingly, IT is being forced to become far more agile as it attempts to keep up with user and line demands. If it doesn't keep up, these folks are pulling out credit cards and bypassing IT and in this OnLive represents a real threat as clearly the credit card approach could work easily there.


Wrapping Up: The Clock Is Ticking


OnLive still lacks solutions and is still largely in pre-release for the desktop. And it also lacks packaged solutions that would allow companies to run services in-house though it is developing them, making its offerings mostly appropriate for small and medium-size businesses. However, expect it to eventually partner with OEMs and begin selling server/services bundles in conjunction with one or more players as it steps up to this opportunity. It'll increasingly put massive pressure on Citrix both to reduce costs and to strengthen the user experience, but two players will also further validate and expand the market, which could help Citrix as well.


For now, it is worth checking out OnLive just to get a sense for what is coming, for in about 10 years, your entire desktop will likely come from the cloud.

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