OnLive iPad App Lets You Watch Games, Promises Much More


OnLive has a new iPad (s aapl) client as of yesterday, Dec. 7. It won’t let you play games, which is what the streaming gaming service was created for, but it will let you watch others doing just that. The press release introducing the app talks about the success of “gaming as a spectator sport,” but that’s the least interesting thing about this app. Instead, the many things it could do in the future go well beyond gaming.

Watching Others Game is Boring

According to OnLive’s marketing, the OnLive Viewer app, which is available now for download for free from the App Store, scratches an itch that many gamers have but isn’t addressed by most services: the desire to watch and interact with their peers without actually gaming. According to OnLive VP of Games and Media John Spinale:

Spectating of other players is by far the most popular OnLive activity after gameplay itself, and the convenience and mobility of iPad and Android tablets adds an incredible dimension to it. Watching live games and interacting with the people playing them takes social gaming to an entirely new level. It’s unlike any other experience. And people love it.

While it may be true that game spectating is OnLive’s second-most popular activity after game playing, I question the usefulness of that bit of information. How many activities does OnLive actually boast? Is updating your Profile settings the third-most popular “activity”? Maybe logging in or out is fourth?

Remote Gaming Has Limited Appeal

I don’t think gaming as a spectator sport is an idea with wide appeal (after watching people play various video games for longer than I think I ever have), or one by which OnLive can establish a workable business model in the mobile realm. OnLive plans to introduce actual gaming to its iPad and Android (s goog) apps as soon as it can optimize controls and gameplay performance for touch-based handsets, which is the main course many gamers are looking forward to following the release of this somewhat limited appetizer.

But even that, despite being OnLive’s original central stated purpose, doesn’t strike me as the key to the application’s potential success on the iPad. The iPad and iPhone have changed the way people think about gaming. Whereas people may have once dreamed of being able to bring their favorite console game to their mobile device without making any sacrifices, consumers now realize this generally results in a compromise: either in controls, visuals or gameplay. Better to encourage the development community to specifically target iOS devices, so that gameplay experiences are better suited to the features and limitations of the devices upon which they’re being played.

While gaming is the backbone of OnLive’s current reputation, it shouldn’t be the focus of its mobile efforts. Gaming was a central tent pole that made sense when the iPad launched a little less than a year ago, but now that Apple’s tablet has a robust native gaming ecosystem of its own, it’s not anywhere near as strong a selling point.

OnLive CEO Steve Perlman seems to agree, based on statements made in the OnLive Viewer press release where he emphasizes the non-gaming applications possible with the tech behind the new app:

The OnLive Viewer mobile App is the last piece of the puzzle to unify the worlds of TV, computing and mobile all under one real-time cloud-based platform, enabling previously inconceivable experiences, capabilities and live, video-rich social interaction. Today we showed the tip of the iceberg for what you’ll be seeing from OnLive, delivering high-performance gaming, entertainment, enterprise and Web applications wherever and whenever people want them, on virtually any device.

Forget gaming. A real-time, cloud-based background whose only technical limitation is the strength of your Internet connection is the real story here. My connection at the moment sucks, and though I wasn’t thrilled about watching others game, the OnLine app showed responsiveness and navigation ease that blew me away. It’s definitely much better than any remote desktop client I’ve ever used in terms of lag time between input action and result.

OnLive has a pretty strong association with gaming, since that’s where it got its start, and it continues to do much to expand its presence in that area on home computers and in living rooms. But if you want to see the true value of the company in terms of how it will affect iPhone and iPad usage, look beyond that to its possible enterprise applications. OnLive’s ability to bring robust computing to relatively underpowered platforms is its most impressive asset.

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