Imagine a world where there are no downloads. And no installations. No, that's not a reference to some nerd-ified version of a John Lennon song; it's fast becoming a reality thanks to Numecent, a company that enables you to access any piece of software, on virtually any device, seamlessly via the cloud.
"What Dropbox is to data, we are to software," says Numecent CEO Osman Kent. "We can take any Windows applications—Photoshop, Office, whatever, you name it—and we have a magic piece of software that can cloudify these applications on our servers. But there's even more magic: We are able to bring [these applications] back to you 20 to 100 times faster than what a digital download would have taken, and we execute them on your machine without installation—and it even works offline."
"Magic" is perhaps the only proper term to describe what Numecent's technology feels like in action. In the same way you might cache a song on Spotify for offline playing, Numecent's technology enables users to continue futzing with Photoshop or playing a graphics-intensive game such as Unreal Tournament even when unplugged from the Internet. "Just as when you play music or videos you need a media player, in our case, to play these applications we have an application player," Kent says.
Kent took me through the process, not only instantly pulling up full versions of Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop on a PC from the cloud, but running Call of Duty: Modern Warefare 3 too—again, all from the cloud—at full frame rates. Nothing changes about your computer's experience. There are no downloads, installations, or changes to the registry. The programs you store in the cloud can be run from anywhere, and in theory, practically on any device. When you're done using a program, it simply "evaporates" from your device.
Development of the core of Numecent's technology began as a project between DARPA and scientists at U.C. Irvine back in 1999. The project was spun out, with a hardware company investing $40 million in the idea. But after going through troubled times, the company went through a managerial buyout, and the startup that would become Numecent went into stealth mode, not to emerge until about a year ago when it brought on Kent to run the company and help raise a $2 million Series A funding round.
Now, Numesent is spinning off a company of its own called Approxy. Approxy will take advantage of the technology for the gaming industry. It's a B2B solution, meaning you won't be going to Approxy's website to virtualize your copy of Grand Theft Auto in the cloud, but a company like Rockstar or EA would. Kent says the company will continue to go after vertical markets in this manner, from the gaming industry to the enterprise world.
"We have all the foundational patents in this field, and they are battle tested—and that's all I'm allowed to say legally, as far as where the battles were," Kent says with a smile, pointing to a slide showing how Numecent has granted its patents to Microsoft and Citrix.
To be clear, we've seen other companies attempt such cloud-based software delivery solutions, which are known as "cloudpaging" solutions. Citrix, for one, offers legacy applications to big businesses from the cloud, while OnLive recently wowed consumers by streaming an entire version of Windows 7 on the iPad. But Numecent's solution is faster and more scalable.
"There are legacy application virtualizations, but they only manage to do half the applications and those applications run at half the speed," Kent argues. "There are pixel-streaming solutions like OnLive, but it requires you to be permanently connected to a high-bandwidth Internet connection. They need to build these app servers near to where you live, so that the ping distance or latency is reduced."
With Numecent's technology, there is no need for such friction, Kent explains. The company's secret sauce is in its memory compression. Every modern computer comes with a memory manager, which allows computers to virtualize physical memory. That sounds wonky, sure, but what Numecent has done is both simple to explain on the surface but an incredibly complicated feat under the hood: It's brought that concept of a memory management unit (or MMU) to the cloud. "As a result, we are able to run software on-demand, at 20 to 100 times compression rates, and only deliver what you need," Kent says.
He shows how "one little server can serve 10,000 concurrent users, located anywhere in the world." Kent demonstrates this for me in person, showing how by running Numecent's software on a smartphone, called Application Jukebox, a user can essentially use their own smartphone as a server that can be delivering on-demand software to your PC or tablet.
"This is all managed from the cloud, but your assets actually live partially on your phone," Kent says. "You tether your phone from any PC to these devices, and without installation, you can run [software]." Kent demonstrates this feature, running Call of Duty, from a smartphone, onto a PC.
"You can take this software, go to a friend's house, tether it to a PC, and start running it with no installation," Kent says. "And when you leave, there's no trace of it on those machines—the licenses for this software are all kept in your pocket on your smartphone." Kent even takes this one step further, and runs Call of Duty on a local tablet using pixel streaming.
"A lot of people have looked at the Amazon Kindle Fire tablet, and they say it's underpowered," a company rep says. "Imagine if you were running this software on the Fire tablet. Suddenly, the power of the GPU and the CPU in the tablet are irrelevant."
Not to limit itself to software such as games and Microsoft Office, Numecent has even ran whole operating systems such as Windows 7 from the cloud, indicating this technology could have wide implications for how we access apps, applications, and downloads in the future, on PCs, tablets, and smartphones.
"Digital downloads are dead," Kent says.
[Image: Flickr user Phil and Pam]