Home Analysis: The Desktop OS May Be Dying, Not the Desktop

Analysis: The Desktop OS May Be Dying, Not the Desktop

There are any number of reasons you may want to praise the new usage model being previewed by Microsoft for Windows 8. Like many, you may come to appreciate the company’s apparently enhanced understanding of the requirements of the mobile user. Financial analysts had been worried about whether Microsoft could address a tablet PC skill set with an operating system born and raised on the desktop.

At last, you may join the chorus in saying, the desktop is dead and “the world is moving to mobile.” If there is one prevailing truth about this industry in the past quarter-century, it’s that things that are dead are the hardest to kill. (For more, see “Reed Hastings,” “DVD.”)

We’re mobile. Services stay put.

So much of our digital workspace is being virtualized nowadays that it’s difficult to keep track of the evolution of the illusion. It is not the application that is moving at all. In fact, perhaps more so now than ever before, the app is what’s holding still (from an Internet perspective). It is we who are moving. Where the functionality takes place is mobile, how that functionality is contacted is mobile.

If you look closely at the Nielsen smartphone app usage numbers from last July, you’ll see that essentially all the categories of smartphone apps are essentially Web services (including games) distributed in a more consumable app format. In an earlier era actually not all that long ago, those same services were mainly provided through a browser.

If you subscribe to the idea that a browser is essentially a desktop app, then you may perpetuate the theory that the embrace of the apps model in the mobile space is evidence of the “world” moving away from the desktop. You could also make the equally applicable case that the need to encapsulate mobile applications with a more familiar motif is evidence that the “world” continues to rely on the desktop, and in fact, prefers it. Both are comprised of equal amounts of the sort of theory-fluff with which analysts substantiate their white papers.

What neither argument effectively observes is a new fact that’s staring us squarely in the face: People are moving their desktops wherever they go, despite technology that remains designed to root it in place. It’s users who are doing as least as much as developers to uproot their desktops and render them mobile. One of the most popular business apps for the iOS platform remains Citrix Receiver, a virtualization platform designed to make applications from multiple OS platforms, and/or the desktops from those platforms, accessible through a mobile device. And an ingenious open platform called Ulteo OVD enables fully licensed Windows software to co-exist with fully-licensed Linux software on the same desktop… which, quite possibly, may be virtualized and received remotely.

…To seamlessly float from one device to another…

Home is where the desktop is; and as the data is showing us, when technological restraints keep desktops fixed in place, even when users are on mobile devices, the workers themselves tend to stay there. What David Strom is questioning is why those restraints must continue to exist; what’s more, why must technology reinforce those restraints rather than break them?

Here is where it gets so hard to kill another dead technology. No single company has a handle on the entire digital delivery platform, from widescreen HDTV to desktop/laptop computer to tablet to smartphone to whatever smaller form factor may yet arrive. And if legislators have anything to say about it, no one company ever will. As a result, each company that has a stake in any one part of the digital delivery platform has an interest in centering the digital workspace around that one part. Thus: Google Apps around Web delivery, Apple iOS around mobile media consumption, and Microsoft Windows around the processor.

It isn’t as if Microsoft doesn’t see this coming. In fact, its people step right out and profess this message quite loudly.

“Over the last several years, there has been a proliferation of smart devices, different form factors. We’ve seen the rise of smartphones, we’ve seen the rise of tablets, of other kinds of devices… permeating the world, and we see more of that happening in the years to come,” S. Somasegar, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for the developers division, told reporters including RWW last week. “If you look at any of us here, whether we are consumers or business workers sitting behind a firewall, we have access to one or more devices in our lives. The thing that matters most to us as consumers is that we want our setup, our applications, our information, our data, and our experience to seamlessly float from one device to another. I call this a ‘connected devices world.’ The best way for you to seamlessly move from one device to another device, with a consistent set of experiences and information, is to have something in the back end that the devices are connected to. More and more, it’s becoming clear that it’s going to be the cloud.”

Viewed in this light, as illuminated by Somasegar himself, Windows 8 may not be as mobile as some have been led to believe. Consider: Windows’ new apps platform, WinRT, uses development methodologies that are ostensibly based on mobile standards (HTML5) but geared toward installing apps on local processors and local storage. Now, those apps may in turn utilize mobile services, including several that had been squarely in the domain of the desktop Web browser. But the business model stays rooted to Windows’ perennial home, the processor, and to some extent relies on Intel’s ability to keep making those processors smaller and cooler to be able to characterize Windows 8 as “mobile.”

At some point – probably sooner rather than later – users will want services that deliver their one desktop wherever they happen to be, on whatever device they’re using at the moment. In the world that Somasegar paints, the job of “painting” that desktop in front of the user at any one time should fall to a cloud-based service, not some processor-bound OS. Windows, in that world, would become less of an environment and more of a hypervisor that supports an environment. That isn’t exactly the world we’re seeing from the preview of Windows 8, where the apps on your tablet, the ones on your laptop, the ones on your TV, and the ones on your PC at work are all separate. Not different, just separate. That artificial separation may support Microsoft’s business model for a short time. But the moment users make Somasegar’s dreams a reality using their iPads, Windows 8 as it is presently envisioned will already have become a dead technology that Microsoft will work all too hard to kill.

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