Remote desktop access vs. mobile access: What's the difference?

While remote access is always remote, it's not always mobile. There's a difference between the two, each with its own use case.

I was talking with a customer earlier this week about his overall desktop virtualization strategy, and the topic of remote access came up. Specifically, he asked me whether I thought consumer tools like GoToMyPC or LogMeIn would be sufficient for remote-access needs. I said "Yes."

Then he asked whether users of iPads and Android devices should have such tools and whether he had to worry about the native apps for each of those devices. At that point, I realized that this guy was confusing "remote access" and "mobile access" -- an important point of distinction when you're designing a virtual desktop solution.

Remote access is about accessing your primary environment when you're not in your office, for example. Mobile access is about accessing your work applications and data from anywhere.

On the surface, it might seem like there's no difference between them, but remote-access solutions and mobile solutions actually use different technologies for different use cases.

The idea behind remote access is that you're accessing your entire business desktop environment from your nonprimary location. If you use virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), remote access is easy. Just log into your Web portal and launch your desktop. If you use a physical desktop computer, you can then use GoToMyPC or LogMeIn from home (or any other "remote" location) to connect back to your office desktop. Of course, if you're a laptop user, anytime you take the laptop with you, you're accessing your work environment remotely, even if you're connected in via a virtual private network (VPN) and are running your Windows desktop locally.

So, while remote access is by definition always remote, it's not always mobile. (A user connecting into his work environment from a home desktop PC is still remote.)

Mobile access, on the other hand, involves accessing corporate apps and data while you're "mobile" -- running around an airport, on an airplane, in the coffee shop or in the car. Most mobile access is done via very small (smartphone) or not-so-small (iPad) devices.

The usage patterns for remote access and mobile access are different. Remote-access users want to do real work, so they connect from a device with a full-size screen and normal keyboard. Mobile users just want to do little bits of work, such as sending a quick email or check a flight's status. While remote users want a full normal Windows desktop, mobile ones just want the data they need in an appropriate format for whatever device they're using.

Remote access can be provided by products that provide a "full Windows experience," such as VDI, Terminal Server, LogMeIn, GoToMyPC or a local laptop. But mobile access is best provided via something like an Android, BlackBerry or Apple iOS device running native apps built for the device such as Android's mail client and SalesForce for iPhone.

While there are technically ways to get "remote-access" full desktops onto the tiny screens of mobile devices -- Citrix Receiver for iPhone, RDP clients for Android -- your users will thank you if you instead let them be mobile when they need to be mobile and remote when they want to be remote.

Brian Madden is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as an opinionated, supertechnical desktop virtualization expert. He has written several books and more than 1,000 articles about desktop and application virtualization. Madden's blog,, receives millions of visitors per year and is a leading source for conversation, debate and discourse about the application and desktop virtualization industry. He is also the creator of BriForum, the premier independent application delivery technical conference.

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