App transformation provides a better way for IT to deliver mobile-friendly versions of Windows legacy applications through a virtual desktop.


If virtual desktop infrastructure works now and solves everything we want, what’s next?

If you’ve followed my columns in Modern Infrastructure, you’ve most likely noticed an evolution around virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to where today’s technologies “solve” many of the VDI shortcomings of even a few years ago. So what’s the next big trend?

App transformation. In a nutshell, app transformation rearranges the user interface (UI) of an app that was designed for one form factor (i.e. the desktop) and makes it usable from devices with a different form factor (i.e. a tablet).

To understand the significance of app transformation, let’s take a step back. Most organizations rely on Windows on the desktop. This has nothing to do with Windows itself per se, but because enterprises have grown to rely on 20-plus years of Windows desktop applications.

Precursor products to VDI, such as Citrix WinFrame and Microsoft Terminal Services, are popular because they can deploy the existing Windows desktop applications that a company might rely on to any platform, for example, Windows desktop apps on a Mac client.

Windows’ iPad problem

When the iPad took the world by storm in 2010, desktop virtualization vendors wrote VDI clients for the iPad. This wasn’t because companies necessarily wanted to use Windows desktop apps on iPads, rather, it was more like, “Well, users want to use iPads, but all our enterprise apps are Windows desktops apps.” Enterprises figured out there were two options: either try to convert 20 years of desktop apps to iPad apps, or find out a way to get their existing Windows desktop apps onto the user-preferred iPads.

Obviously, converting 20 years’ worth of Windows desktop apps to iPad apps would cost millions of dollars and take years of effort. However, installing VDI and delivering Windows desktops with Windows desktop apps to an iPad is something companies can accomplish relatively cheaply and quickly.

The performance of VDI on an iPad is fine, but that doesn’t make using a Windows desktop app on an iPad a good experience. That’s not the fault of VDI. The problem is that Windows desktop applications were designed to be used by desktop form factor clients. Desktops have one or more large displays, a full human-sized keyboard, and a pixel-precise pointing device.

Apple’s iPads, however, have a single small screen, the keyboard is a virtual keyboard that pops up to take even more of that small, valuable screen space, and the pointing device is the user’s fingertip, which only has half an inch or so of precision.

Today’s Web technologies have solved this problem nicely with responsive design, which is what allows you to visit the same website from a phone, tablet or laptop and get three different UIs. The desktop might show a full sidebar menu, whereas the phone might show a little menu icon in the corner that, when tapped, brings out a full-screen menu.

Responsive design is possible with Web apps since their UI is defined by CSS and Javascript. Unfortunately, Windows desktop apps don’t have that kind of separation — the core application and its UI are one in the same, which has a negative effect on the corresponding virtual desktop interface. This is where app transformation comes in.

Transforming Windows apps

Windows-based app transformation technologies empower IT departments to create UI translations of existing Windows desktop apps, which are then implement to make the apps more usable from mobile devices. These tools run on the remote Windows hosts, and they do their UI translation at runtime. Using them does not change the app at all, and IT doesn’t need access to the application’s source code.

An IT pro can use a visual designer to quite literally build a new UI for an app, with visual tools that link buttons, menus, and other components of the new UI back to the app’s original parts.

What’s great about app transformation is that the original Windows app still runs in the VDI or Remote Desktop Session Host, complete with its security, plugins, and everything else it needs. The app transformation tool simply grabs the UI, applies the transformation profile the customer created and sends the new virtual desktop interface down to the user instead of the original one.

App transformation is a new concept, but we’re already seeing vendors like PowWow andCapriza create interesting tools. Citrix and VMware have also shown preliminary interest in app transformation.

A transformed app will never be as ideal as a pure mobile app. Still, the capability to build a mobile-friendly version of an existing Windows desktop app in a few days, instead of a few years, holds enough value that app transformation will become a big part of our VDI and remote Windows environments.

Brian Madden is an opinionated, supertechnical, fiercely independent desktop virtualization and consumerization expert. Write to him at

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This was first published in March 2015