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Integrate legacy Windows applications with modern device capabilities

Enabling virtual desktop users to open apps in the format that allows the apps to function best would be ideal, but there's work to do to enable this capability.

Modern devices such as tablets and smartphones often include mobile-friendly applications that mirror some legacy...

Windows applications, but there are usually hold-out apps that remain tied to Windows and will never have mobile equivalents.

The problem is, most VDI products do not take advantage of the native application capabilities of the endpoints users work with. Simply having the capability to move between local apps and virtual applications with context awareness could enable more efficient mobile workers.

To enable better user productivity, virtual desktops must integrate apps and capabilities native to the user's endpoint with these legacy Windows applications. Virtual desktops that allow legacy Windows application access from modern devices must be able to integrate with the local apps on users' endpoints.

The problem in practice

Imagine a user working on an Apple iPhone. She must access a Windows-based finance system with no mobile equivalent to review a scanned copy of an invoice before approving the payment. To work with the document, she accesses the application through a virtual desktop. Viewing a multipage PDF document on a virtual desktop on an iPhone is likely a painful process. Panning and zooming around Adobe Acrobat Reader on Windows, for example, is no picnic on a touch-based device.

Instead of opening the invoice through the virtual desktop, it would be easier if the user could access the PDF on the mobile device itself using the mobile version of Adobe Acrobat Reader, which supports pinching to zoom and two-finger scrolling. Even better would be to grant the user the ability to sign the document on her mobile device and save it back to the finance system.

How to choose which legacy apps to migrate to the cloud and which approach to take when migrating

When there is no mobile app option, the opposite is also important. The user must also be able to launch a link to a legacy Windows application and have the app open in a virtual desktop. Context when launching applications is important. If the link goes to a specific customer, then the Windows app should open in a virtual desktop on that endpoint as if the virtual desktop launched the link.

There is precedent for launching local applications from inside a virtual desktop in this manner. Citrix has a feature in XenApp called Local App Access. It allows a Citrix virtual desktop to pass a file type association to a Windows machine running the Citrix desktop. The application on the endpoint can then open a file from the desktop and the local application will appear overlaid on the desktop.

Putting a Windows client application into the Windows virtual desktop with this tool makes sense. Doing the same to a touch-based application, however, does not. Touch-based apps should maintain the device's standard UI -- single app, full screen -- rather than squeezing it into the virtual desktop.

When else is this relevant?

Touch-based mobile devices are not the only endpoints where it is beneficial to open apps in a context-aware manner. The same idea applies to any nondedicated client device that could have its capabilities passed back into the virtual desktop.

A user might work with a virtual desktop to access an internal web application from a laptop when she is mobile. If the laptop is on the internal network, then its local browser likely provides a better experience than a browser inside a virtual desktop. In the same vein, locally installed Microsoft Office performs better than it would inside a virtual desktop.

Any endpoint with local applications could have the apps integrated into the virtual desktop experience. It might not even be a one-to-one equivalence of desktop apps and the client-side apps. A mobile banking app, for example, might work much better than the web-based equivalent, so it would be ideal if the virtual desktop launched the mobile app on a user's phone rather than opening a web browser inside the virtual desktop running on the phone.

A tool that enables context-aware app launches must be cognizant of the device's specific capabilities.

Delivering supporting apps in the native mobile user interface can ease the transition to delivering legacy Windows applications as published applications rather than publishing them to virtual desktops. Having the apps launch based on the endpoint is most useful when the endpoint does not have a keyboard and mouse, such as with tablets and smartphones.

Anyone who uses these devices to access a Windows desktop knows that the experience is not optimal. Even so, access to legacy Windows applications will remain necessary for many years because it is unlikely developers will take the time to change every core business application to be more mobile-friendly.

How to address the problem

Enabling users to seamlessly transition between mobile apps and legacy Windows applications is crucial. The more users can work with applications in their intended form, the better their experience and the more productive they are.

For this capability to become a reality, a VDI product needs policy framework integration, such as determining whether a mobile device is on the corporate network or not to dictate its access rights.

Additionally, a tool that enables context-aware app launches must be cognizant of the device's specific capabilities. A Google Android tablet with a keyboard and trackpad, for example, has very different capabilities than an iPhone.

The VDI product also needs to allow for persistent user preference. One user might prefer Adobe Acrobat Reader on her device, but her colleague might want to use the Windows Reader for some advanced functionality.

This was last published in November 2018

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