Review: Citrix Receiver for iPad

Debate may continue in some quarters about whether the iPad makes sense as an enterprise tool, but at Citrix Systems, a company committed to the idea of desktop virtualization, there was never any doubt.

It released Citrix Receiver for iPad, a free app that works with the company's XenApp and XenDesktop virtualization environments, in time for the iPad launch, and updated it in May. (It also has versions for iPhone and Android.) By mid-April Citrix Receiver was the number one iPad business app.

Receiver lets employees with iPads access servers running the virtualization software and use Windows applications almost as if they were sitting at a desktop or laptop computer.

The catch, of course, is that your company must already have invested in the Citrix desktop virtualization technology, which requires at least one server (either in-house or at a hosting facility) and costs about $250 per user for small business editions of the XenApp software (less in larger installations).

According to Chris Fleck, Citrix vice president of community and solutions development, the company already has 220,000 customers using the technology worldwide, with "hundreds of millions" of users.

Desktop virtualization appeals to many companies because it means they can get by with lower-cost terminal devices and data is kept secure on servers rather than distributed on employees' computers.

Employees can also use the apps and access the data even when away from the office. Desktop virtualization technologies like Xen work over local area networks or over the wide area network, encrypting data they send and receive.

Mobile Health Care Tapping iPad with Citrix

"One of the big use cases we see is health care," Fleck says. "And doctors want to be able to use their applications from home and in their own offices."

Existing customers represent the "low hanging fruit," he says -- "all those companies that want to get more mobile and a little more lightweight, that want to connect an iPad and it just works."

Most Xen environments will support Receiver without modification, Fleck says. Some will require relatively minor reconfiguration.

And how well does Receiver work?

We tested it over an Internet connection to a Citrix demo facility in Dallas, Texas. Using a 16GB iPad connecting on a very fast home cable modem service (nominally 8 megabits per second downstream), the time to launch the Citrix "Cloud Workspace" was less than three seconds.

The workspace displays a computer-like desktop with icon buttons for most frequently used applications. A menu bar at the top includes a drop-down menu of additional available applications, organized into subfolders, plus buttons for launching configuration settings, search function and Citrix's GoToMeeting Web meeting service.

The user, or an administrator, can set up the work space with icons on the desktop for applications the user will need frequently.

The Citrix demo environment included three of the Microsoft Office 2010 applications - Word, PowerPoint and Excel - plus examples of 3D and dashboard-type applications, including medical apps. It took about 20 seconds to launch most.

Once launched, the applications (the ones we knew) looked exactly as they do on a Windows screen, except for the small bar in the center at the top. When tapped, it drops down a menu panel with options for returning to the work space, accessing Help and configuring the interface for this application.

Citrix boasts that there are actually advantages to using Receiver with Xen rather than native apps on the iPad. One is that Flash-based applications work in Receiver. This is important, Fleck says, because many enterprises now run browser-based apps that will not work in the iPad's native Safari browser.

But Flash apps do not work well enough to view Flash video in most cases, as we were able to see when accessing pages on a browser initially provided in the test environment (but later removed.) This may be a positive advantage, though, as it will discourage employees visiting Hulu on company time.

One other advantage: you can use the $35 iPad VGA connector to connect an iPad to a projector and display everything showing in the Citrix Receiver window. Video out does not work for all native iPad apps.

An additional supposed advantage is that Citrix Receiver enables Windows apps with multitouch capabilities. You can use the finger-spreading gesture to zoom in, for example. But the display becomes pixilated when you do.

Scrolling by swiping the screen also works but not well if the pixel dimensions of the application window are larger than the iPad's 1024x768. In that event, you need to turn scrolling off in the Citrix application menu to lock the screen.

There are other ways to scroll, however -- by tapping, holding and dragging Windows scroll bars or tapping scroll buttons, or using the Citrix arrow keys overlay bar. Or by attaching a keyboard and using its arrow keys.

There may be some advantage to Windows apps in Citrix Receiver over native iPad apps, but the more critical comparison is between Windows apps in Receiver versus the same apps on a Windows PC. There are definitely drawbacks with the iPad.

One of the biggest, the absence of a physical keyboard -- definitely needed for volume text input in a program such as Microsoft Word, for example -- is easily solved by adding the $70 iPad Keyboard Dock from Apple or virtually any Bluetooth keyboard.

Typing on a physical keyboard in Word in the Citrix test environment seemed little different in terms of responsiveness than typing on a PC. Characters appeared on the screen without delays.

Note, however, that responsiveness of apps in Receiver and time to launch are both highly dependent on server capacity -- most can support no more than 100 users, Fleck says -- and bandwidth in the connection to the server.

The absence of a mouse or other pointing device is just as or more critical and much more difficult to resolve. Even Fleck concedes it's a serious problem.

"In reality, there are a lot of Windows applications that need a mouse to navigate them," he says. "If you're using the iPad for any length of time with a keyboard, lifting your hand up to touch screen can get tiresome."

We can attest to this, having tried it with both Windows apps in Citrix and native iPad apps.

Citrix has a solution of sorts. It developed an iPhone application that allows it to be used as a trackpad when paired to an iPad over Bluetooth. You have to have an iPhone, of course. We were unable to test this solution.

Another possibility: "jailbreak" the iPad -- hack it so it can be used with non-Apple-approved applications -- and install an app that enables a Bluetooth mouse.

There are a few objections to this. Jailbreaking voids the iPad warranty and may make it more vulnerable to security breaches, which means it won't be embraced by very many enterprise IT professionals.

Also, Bluetooth mouse software for the iPad may not be available yet even outside the Apple walled garden, although it is available for jailbroken iPhones.

The absence of a mouse isn't as serious a problem with some applications. The dashboard apps, for example, work well in some cases because they don't require very complex navigation - just tap a button to see a different display.

That said, we noticed in the sample doctor's dashboard app that on a page displaying several ECG images, without a mouse it was not possible to zoom in on one of them to get a clear view.

Bottom line: Citrix Receiver for iPad could be just what you need, if you already have the Citrix Xen technology deployed in your organization, and if you have 'lite' users who need a portable device primarily for content consumption activities. It is not, however, a panacea for iPad in the enterprise.


virtualization, iPad, Apple, Citrix, mobile computing