THE DEATH OF THE DESKTOP?

 

The death of the desktop is something that analysts have been talking about for a very long time. Many are anti-Microsoft and allow their sentiment to color their view. Others see the future, and simply hope for a different technical landscape with more choice, a hope that many had for Linux (unfulfilled on the desktop) and that Apple started to make inroads against, gaining as much as 10% share. Others simply hope to see cloud computing enabling a simpler, install free world where the hardware requirements on the desktop are replaced by server based, internet computing power. Scott McNealy could be argued as one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of this model, although his famous dislike/jealousy of Microsoft often coloured his point of view:

"At Sun we believe in the network-computing model. We’re not wired up and married to the host-based centralized computing model, and we’re not all tangled up in the desktop hairball – that is the desktop computing model of the Intel-Microsoft world. Everything from the first computer we shipped a long time ago goes out with a network interface, and every desktop, server, application, software product, and service product that we’ve ever offered has been network-centric."

Rightly or wrongly, disappointed or happy (depending on your personal and financial motivations), the desktop remains alive despite much effort – not unlike the often sought after, fictional ‘paperless office’. And as my weekend demonstrated (Where I spent countless hours rebuilding 2 Windows 7 machines after only 18 months of use, due to constant profile corruptions, blue screens and much family pain) the desktop is far from simple and far from ‘well’.

But change is afoot and the dominance of the desktop OS faces a new challenge. Before I expand on that thought, I will make one clear note, it is far from decided and you can count on one thing, Microsoft never gives up and has more resources than all of the competition combined. It will remain a driving force in the desktop destiny, that is for sure.

That being said, I was struck by a few items over the last two weeks that seem like key inflection points in the future of the desktop. Consider the following:

1.   The rise of the tablet: The tablet was envisioned by Gates and Microsoft many years ago. As far back as the late 90’s, Microsoft was talking about digital ink and their push into what they called the ‘Tablet PC’ market. I had one of the first tablet PCs, a Compaq T1000 and it was revolutionary, I could write on it in meetings, it was thin and very versatile. But Microsoft’s approach had 2 fatal flaws – it was a large, desktop based OS that required fast hardware (which is a direct contradiction to the tablet form factor) and had very poor battery life.

Fast forward almost a decade, and in almost a XEROX PARC like moment for Microsoft, the iPad shows up. In one fell swoop, Apple created an entirely new market with well engineered hardware and an operating system which is much more mobile OS than desktop OS. They built the tablet – OS and hardware from the ground up and one could argue, that with many new tablets on the horizon, this class of device has demonstrated value and is going to thrive as a viable desktop alternative. Just go sit in an executive boardroom and you will see why. iPad’s everywhere.

2.  The rise of the thin OS:  The rise of the tablet and the growth of smart phones running high speed processors (1ghz+) is driving demand for a thin OS. One that boots instantly, uses less memory and has characteristics that are moving the market away from the processor wild device, heavy or non portable devices to thin downed devices.

Last week, Apple took that step on the laptop. While reading the press release on the new Apple notebook, I was intrigued by a few key changes that Apple has made. Instant on, solid state disk and their new app store are very ‘iOS’ or mobile like functions – and this move is significant. Perhaps the desktop OS isn’t dead, it is simply gearing up for a big change, where success requires a transformation – driven by mobility.

3.  The Application Store:  One of the most important changes is the availability of applications. Walk into a local Best Buy, notice that the PC aisle is getting smaller?

With internet speeds that make downloading a file almost instant, why buy packaged software? But it remains a fragmented experience. There is no app store for the desktop, there is no system of ranking. And of course, in this clutter that is the internet – Apple sees opportunity and charges forward with another transformation. They are about to launch an app store for the laptop (the desktop will surely follow):

Macs will soon have an online application store, similar to the one for the iPhone and iPad, Jobs said today at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California. New computers also will take better advantage of multitouch gestures on track pads, mimicking Apple’s mobile iOS software. The app store will open within 90 days, and Lion will be released in the summer of 2011.

 With tons of Android tablets on the way in the coming 3 months, Android growing 10X and taking 50% share in the US market, and a change in the way we use our devices (mobility being the key), I would suggest that change is afoot ….

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