By Conrad Blickens... on Fri, 05/07/2010
What you're seeing in the picture to the right is lots of folks' worst nightmare: Windows XP on an iPad. The real thing and fully functional. How is this possible? With a VNC client (I use VNC Viewer). The iPad is not really running Windows XP, of course; it's just running a piece of software that lets you view, control and use Macs, Linux boxes and, yes, PCs.
What is VNC all about and what can you do with it? Well, VNC stands for "Virtual Network Computing." The technology goes way back and was initially developed at the Olivetti Research Laboratory in the UK. It is now administered by a company by the name of RealVNC. In essence, by running a VNC server on a platform and a VNC client on another, the client (in this case my iPad with a VNC app) can remotely control and use any server.
With VNC on my iPad I can connect into any of the Macs, PCs and Linux computers in my home or office and use them. All I have to do is connect to their IP address, type in a password, and the screen appears. I can operate Windows XP on my Acer netbook, use Fedora 10 on my Linux box, and connect to my iMac27. So if I am lounging in my favorite easy chair and feel like checking my mail in my main iMac Mail account from my iPad, I can. If I want to play a quick game of Shisen-Sho on my Linux box from my iPad, I can. And if I want to do some stuff on my Acer netbook, I can. Oh, and if I really need to check a website that insists on Flash, I can. That's because with VNC, I see on my iPad exactly what the server computer does, including Flash.
How well does VNC work? That depends on your expectations. Since you're viewing another machine through the iPad's 1024 x 768 pixel screen, you have to pan around or zoom in to work with a server that has much higher resolution, like my iMac27's 2560 x 1440 pixel. And moving the cursor around also takes some getting used to. But it all works, not just certain programs. The wireless connection is fast enough to browse and do some real work. It's not blindingly fast, of course, so if you run video, the video, depending on the resolution, runs slow. It does run, though, even 1080p, albeit more like a slide show.
Does this only work within your own network, or over the Internet? It does work over the Internet, but it requires some extra configuring of your router and perhaps the firewall of your computer. It's not magic at all, you just set up a virtual server port on your access point as you would for a myriad of popular online games. If you do that, you then can use your iPad to access and control your Mac, PC or Linux box from anywhere in the world.
This is something that's really much more than a technology demonstration. If there's stuff you need to do on other computers, you can do it through your iPad no matter where you are. You can set up connections for multiple computers, so connecting to one is just a click away. Once connected, you can bring up the iPad keyboard anytime, and there's even a way to do left and right mouse clicks and scrolling within apps. The VNC Viewer for iPad costs US$9.99, a total bargain.