In 2019, Google launched an ambitious project called Stadia. Stadia users can play games online, but not how you might think. They don’t need a machine capable of running a game. They don’t even have to install the game. They simply jump onto Stadia, which streams the gameplay to them, picks up their input via peripherals such as keyboard or gamepads, and responds accordingly.
It’s similar in concept to Netflix, where you watch a show or movie that isn’t on your local machine. Of course, Stadia requires much lower latency and greater bandwidth than Netflix would, which is one reason why it and similar services such as Amazon Luna and Geforce Now haven’t yet taken over the market. But though such services still need to grow and iron out their kinks, they tell what the future looks like for digital applications.
“It’s a revolution waiting to happen,” says Colin Thornton, Turrito’s Chief Financial Officer. “That is basically inevitable – digital services such as applications moving in this direction.”
From the cloud with love
By ‘this direction,’ Thornton refers to delivering advanced applications across a network instead of provisioning it from a local machine. We are already familiar with this model in the guise of Gmail, Office365, Intacct, Monday, Slack and countless more. But those are what we might call ‘entry level’ applications. When it comes to more demanding apps, such as CAD software or graphics editors, the ball is still firmly in the local machine’s court.
But services such as Stadia give a glimpse of what is possible – and it’s clearly possible to create cloud applications that could rival Photoshop or AutoCAD. And not the lighter application versions made for mobile devices, but fully-fledged desktop-calibre software.
There are examples of this trend, such as Rendercore, which renders models as a service. But most of these are still secondary services that an application can plug into. Ditto for the Adobe Creative Cloud service, where you still need to download and install the software. But contrast that to Office365, where you can use online versions of Word and Excel. Once users catch onto the convenience, they take to it like bees to honey.
“Nowadays, 95% of our customers are on Office365. And the idea of them moving off of it is… it’s impossible. They’ve had the Kool-Aid, they understand what it means to their business. The thought of going back to anything else isn’t there,” says Thornton.
So if there is potential pent-up demand for such services from business, why is gaming the current focus? Thornton believes it’s down to two factors. First, games are a low-hanging fruit with a willing and tech-savvy audience who will spend extra for the experience. Second, the other markets might find the idea a little underwhelming, for now.
“Right now, an architect can easily get a high spec’d virtual desktop from a platform like Amazon Workspaces and install whatever demanding software they have there. Then, he or she could use an entry-level machine on their desk and save the capital outlay on expensive hardware. But it’s not very sexy, and architects tend to be traditionalists so this way of working doesn’t seem to be catching on. Gamers are much easier. They are the low hanging fruit for these platform providers like Amazon or Google because they’re tech-savvy, early adopters, and just want maximum (graphical) bang for buck. If someone provides a product or a platform that has the content, delivers awesome graphics and the latency is manageable, gamers will come.”
Getting ready for the thin future
Technologists who have been around know this has a parallel – the thin clients of the Nineties. Though almost universally loathed because of their complexity and cost, thin clients were the progenitors of the cloud – a world where central servers provision and power services for clients on the network.
We could say that modern web services have taken up that mantle, as have streaming services and smart TVs that are essentially thin clients. But Stadia and its peers are opening the door to much more hardcore and substantial type of applications that – until now – resided almost exclusively on a desktop and some high-end laptops. And by pushing the paradigm through gaming, the market can overcome some challenges against this emerging future.
“The biggest obvious barrier is latency,” explains Thornton. “You need really fast response times to play a game over a streaming service. That’s why the launches of these services have been limited to certain countries. You’ll also need faster and stronger networks. While we are impressed with broadband right now, not all broadband can, for example, stream 4K consistently.”
For that matter, local area networks will also barely keep up. Right now, a gigabit network sounds very fast. But in the future of high-end streaming applications, it may be a minimum requirement.
“That’s the point,” Thornton concludes. “I can’t say if something like Stadia will succeed. But the engineering going into services like that shows what we’ll be doing next. I’d go as far as to say that if latency and bandwidth weren’t issues, we’d be in that future already for games and that other applications will follow very soon. Currently, it’s a bit further away. But the proof is right there.”
We can go even further, such as using HTML5 to render applications directly in a browser. You can already play the original 1990s game Doom in your browser (via the dos.zone website). Yes, that’s an old title. But even the car was once an awkward and rickety effort that invited more jokes than appreciation. Today, a Tesla can reach 100km/h in 5 seconds – no joking about that!
One day, hopefully soon, our most demanding applications might be doing the same from a cloud server near you.