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The Future of the Desktop

Everything is moving to the cloud. As we enter the third decade of the Web we are seeing an increasing shift from native desktop applications towards Web-hosted clones that run in browsers. For example, a range of products such as Microsoft Office Live, Google Docs, Zoho, ThinkFree, DabbleDB, Basecamp, and many others now provide Web-based alternatives to the full range of familiar desktop office productivity apps. The same is true for an increasing range of enterprise applications, led by companies such as Salesforce.com, and this process seems to be accelerating. In addition, hosted remote storage for individuals and enterprises of all sizes is now widely available and inexpensive. As these trends continue, what will happen to the desktop and where will it live?

This is a guest post by Nova Spivack, founder and CEO of Twine. This is the final version of an article Spivack has been working on in his public Twine.

Is the desktop of the future going to just be a web-hosted version of the same old-fashioned desktop metaphors we have today?

No. There have already been several attempts at copying the old-fashioned “files and folders” desktop interface to the Web, but they have not caught on. Imitations desktops to-date have simply been clunky and slow imitations of the real-thing at best. Others have been overly slick. But one thing they all have in common: None of them have nailed it.  People don’t want to manage all their information on the Web in the same interface they use to manage data and apps on their local PC. The Web is an entirely different medium than the desktop and it requires a new kind of interface. The desktop of the future – what some have called “the Webtop” – still has yet to be invented.

The desktop of the future is going to be a hosted web service

Is the desktop even going to exist anymore as the Web becomes increasingly important? Yes, there has to be some kind of place that we consider to be our personal “home” and “workspace” — but it’s not going to live on any one device.

As we move into a world that is increasingly mobile, where users often work across several different devices in the course of their day, we need unified access to our applications and data. This requires that our applications and data do not reside on local devices anymore, but rather that they will live in the cloud and be accessible via Web services.

The painful process of using synchronization utilities to keep data on our different devices in-synch will finally be a thing of the past. Similarly an entire class of applications for remote-PC access will also become extinct. Instead, all devices will synch with the cloud, where your applications, data and desktop workspace state will live as a unified, hosted service. Your desktop will appear on whatever device you login to, just as you left it wherever you last accessed it. This shift harkens back to previous attempts to revive thin-client computing –  such as Sun Microsystems’ Java Desktop – but this time it is going to actually become mainstream.

The Browser is Going to Swallow Up the Desktop

It’s a classic embrace-and-extend story – the Web browser began as just another app on the desktop and has quickly embraced and extended every other application to become the central tool on everyone’s desktop. All that remains is the desktop itself – and the browser is quickly making inroads there as well. In particular Firefox, with it’s easy extensibility and huge range of add-ons, is rapidly displacing the remaining features of the desktop.

If these trends continue, will the browser eventually swallow up or simply replace the desktop? Yes. In fact, it will probably happen very soon. There just isn’t any reason to have a desktop outside the browser anymore. What we think of as “the desktop” is really just a perspective on our information and applications – it’s really just another “page” or context in our digital lives. This could easily exist within a browser. So instead of launching the browser from the desktop, it makes more sense to launch the desktop from the browser. In this way of thinking, the desktop is really just our home page – the place where we do our work and keep up with our world.

The focus of the desktop will shift from information to attention

As our digital lives evolve out of the old-fashioned desktop into the browser-centric Web environment we will see a shift from organizing information spatially (directories, folders, desktops, etc.) to organizing information temporally (feeds, lifestreams, microblogs, timelines, etc.). The Web is constantly changing and the biggest challenge is not finding information, it is keeping up with it.

The desktop of the future is going to be more concerned with helping users manage information overload – particularly the overload caused by change. In this respect, it is going to feel more like an RSS feed reader or a social news site than a directory. The focus will be on helping the user to manage and keep up with all the stuff flowing in and out of the their environment. The interface will be tuned to help the user understand what the trends are, rather than just on how things are organized.

Users are going to shift from acting as librarians to acting as daytraders.

As we move into an era where content creation and distribution become almost infinitely cheap, the scarcest resources will no longer be storage or bandwidth, it will be attention. The pace of information creation and distribution continues to accelerate and there is no end in sight, yet the cognitive capabilities of the individual human brain are finite and we are already at our limits.

In order to cope with the overwhelming complexity of our digital lives, we are going to increasingly rely on tools that help us manage our attention more productively — rather than tools that simply help us manage our information.

It is a shift from the mindset of being librarians to that of being daytraders. In the PC era we were all focused on trying to manage the information on our computers — we were acting as librarians. Filing things was a big hassle, and finding them was just as difficult. But today filing information is really not the problem: Google has made search so powerful and ubiquitous that many Web users don’t bother to file anything anymore – instead they just search again when they need it. The librarian problem has been overcome by the brute force of Web-scale search. At least for now.

Instead we are now struggling to cope with a different problem – the problem of filtering for what is really important or relevant now and in the near-future. With limited time and attention, we have to be careful what we look for and what we pay attention to. This is the mindset of the daytrader. Bet wrong and you could end up wasting your precious resources, bet right and you could find the motherlode before the rest of the world and gain valuable advantages by being first. Daytraders are focused on discovering and keeping track of trends. It’s a very different focus and activity from being a librarian, and it’s what we are all moving towards.

The Webtop will be more social and will leverage and integrate collective intelligence

The Webtop is going to be more socially oriented than desktops of today — it will have built-in messaging and social networking, as well as social-media sharing, collaborative filtering, discussions, and other community features.

The social dimension of our lives is becoming perhaps our most important source of information. We get information via email from friends, family and colleagues. We get information via social networks and social media sharing services. We co-create information with others in communities. And we team up with our communities to filter, rate and redistribute content.

The social dimension is also starting to play a more important role in our information management and discovery activities. Instead of those activities remaining as solitary, they are becoming more communal. For example many social bookmarking and social news sites use community sentiment and collaborative filtering to help to highlight what is most interesting, useful or important. 

Sites such as Digg, Reddit, Mixx, Slashdot, Delicious, StumbleUpon, Twine, and many others, show that collective intelligence may be the most powerful way to help individuals and groups filter content and manage their attention more productively. The power of many trumps the power of one.

The desktop of the future is going to have powerful semantic search and social search capabilities built-in

Our evolving Webtop is going to have more powerful search built-in. It will of course provide best-of-breed keyword search capabilities, but this is just the beginning.

It will also combine social search and semantic search. On the social search dimension, users will be able to search their information and rank it via attributes of their social graph (for example, “find documents about x and rank them by how many of my friends liked them.”)

Semantic search on the other hand will enable more granular search and navigation of information along a potentially open-ended networks of properties and relationships. For example you will be able to search in a highly structured way — for example, search for products you once bookmarked that have a price of $10.95 and are on-sale this week. Or search for documents you read which were authored by Sue and related to project X, in the last month. The semantics of the future desktop will be open-ended. That is to say that users as well as other application and information providers will be able to extend it with custom schemas, new data types, and custom fields to any piece of information.

Interactive shared spaces will replace folders

Forget about shared folders — that is an outmoded paradigm. Instead, the new metaphor will be interactive shared spaces. These shared spaces will be more like wikis than folders. They will be permission-based environments where one or many contributors can meet, interact synchronously or asynchronously, to work on information and other tasks together.

There are many kinds of shared spaces already in existence, including discussion forums, blogs, social network profiles, community sites, file sharing tools, conferencing tools, version control systems, and groupware. But as we move into Web 3.0 these will begin to converge. We will store information in them, we will work on information there, we will publish and distribute information through them, we will search across them, and we will interact with others around them.

Our next-generation shared spaces will be nestable and linkable like folders, but they will be far more powerful and dynamic, and they will be accessible via HTTP and other APIs such as SPARQL enabling data to be moved in and out of them easily by other applications around the Web.

Any group of two or more individuals will be able to participate in a shared space that will appear on their individual desktops, for a particular purpose. These new shared spaces will not only provide richer semantics in the underlying data, social network, and search, but they will also enable groups to seamlessly and collectively add, organize, track, manage, discuss, distribute, and search for information of mutual interest.

The Portable Desktop

The underlying data in the future desktop, and in all associated services it connects, will be represented using open-standard data formats. Not only will the data be open, but the semantics of the data – the schema that defines it – will also be defined in an open way. The value of open linked-data and open semantics is that data will not be held prisoner anywhere: it will be portable and will be easy to integrate with other data. The emerging Semantic Web and Data Portability initiatives provide a good set of open standards for enabling this to happen.

Due to open-standards and data-portability, your desktop and data will be free from “platform lock-in.” This means that your Webtop might even be portable to a different competing Webtop provider someday. If and when that becomes possible, how will Webtop providers compete to add value?

The Smart Desktop

One of the most important aspects of the coming desktop is that it’s going to be smart. It’s going to have to be. Users simply cannot handle the complexity of their information landscapes anymore – they need help. There are a range of tasks that the desktop should automate for users including: organizing information, reminding users when necessary, resolving data conflicts, managing versioning, maintaining data quality, backing up data, prioritizing information, and gathering relevant information and suggesting it when appropriate.

Most other features of the future desktop will be commodities – but intelligence will still be difficult to provide, and so it will be the last remaining frontier in which competing Webtop providers will be able to differentiate their offerings.

The Webtop is going to learn and help you to be more productive. As you use it, it’s going to adjust to your interests, relationships, current activities, information and preferences. It will adaptively self-organize to help you focus your attention on what is most important to whatever context you are in.

When reading something while you are taking a trip to Milan it may organize itself to be more contextually relevant to that time, place and context. When you later return home to San Francisco it will automatically adapt and shift to your home context. When you do a lot of searches about a certain product it will realize your context and intent has to do with that product and will adapt to help you with that activity for a while, until your behavior changes.

Your desktop will actually be a semantic knowledge base on the back-end. It will encode a rich semantic graph of your information, relationships, interests, behavior and preferences. You will be able to permit other applications to access part or all of your graph to datamine it and provide you with value-added views and even automated intelligent assistance.

For example, you might allow an agent that cross-links things to see all your data: it would go and add cross links to relevant things onto all the things you have created or collected. Another agent that makes personalized buying recommendations might only get to see your shopping history across all shopping sites you use.

Your desktop may also function as a simple personal assistant at times. You will be able to converse with your desktop eventually — through a conversational agent interface. While on the road you will be able to email or SMS in questions to it and get back immediate intelligent answers. You will even be able to do this via a voice interface.

For example, you might ask, “where is my next meeting?” or “what Japanese restaurants do I like in LA?” or “What is Sue’s Smith’s phone number?” and you would get back answers. You could also command it to do things for you — like reminding you to do something, or helping you keep track of an interest, or monitoring for something and alerting you when it happens.

Because your future desktop will connect all the relationships in your digital life — relationships connecting people, information, behavior, preferences and applications — it will be the ultimate place to learn about your interests and preferences.

Federated, open policies and permissions

This rich graph of meta-data that comprises your future desktop will enable the next-generation of smart services to learn about you and help you in an incredibly personalized manner. It will also of course be rife with potential for abuse and privacy will be a major function and concern.

One of the biggest enabling technologies that will be necessary is a federated model for sharing meta-data about policies and permissions on data. Information that is considered to be personal and private in Web site X should be recognized and treated as such by other applications and websites you choose to share that information with. This will require a way for sharing meta-data about your policies and permissions between different accounts and applications you use.

The semantic web provides a good infrastructure for building and deploying a decentralized framework for policy and privacy integration, but it has yet to be developed, let alone adopted. For the full vision of the future desktop to emerge a universally accepted standard for exchanging policy and permission data will be a necessary enabling technology.

The personal cloud

One way to think of the emerging Webtop is as your personal cloud. It will not just be a cloud of data, it will be a compute cloud as well. When you need to store or retrieve information it will provide that service. When you need to do computations, it will provide that to you as well. The cost of harnessing the capabilities of your cloud may be based on a monthly subscription or it may be metered, or it may be ad-supported.

Your personal cloud will have a center – provided by your main Webtop provider, where your address will live — but most of its services will be distributed in other places, and even federated among other providers. Yet from an end-user perspective it will function as a seamlessly integrated service. You will be able to see and navigate all your information and applications, as if they were in one connected space, regardless of where they are actually hosted. You will be able to search your personal cloud from any point within it. It will look and feel like a single cohesive service.

The WebOS

No discussion of the future of the desktop would be complete without delving into the topic of the WebOS. The shift from desktop to Webtop – the move from a local desktop to a hosted desktop – is a necessary step towards the entire operating system moving to the Web as well. Many of the services that comprise an operating system are already available as Web services, but they are not yet integrated into a single cohesive WebOS. However it seems clear that the major players are aware of this opportunity and are positioning their services to capture it. Just as the desktop OS wars were won by capturing the “high ground” of the desktop, I would not be surprised if the same principle holds in the battle to own the WebOS. Whomever wins the Webtop will win the whole stack.

Who is most likely to own the future desktop?

When I think about what the future desktop is going to look like it seems to be a convergence of several different kinds of services that we currently view as separate.

It will be hosted on the cloud and accessible across all devices. It will place more emphasis on social interaction, social filtering, and collective intelligence. It will provide a very powerful and extensible data model with support for both unstructured and arbitrarily structured information. It will enable almost peer-to-peer like search federation, yet still have a unified home page and user-experience. It will be smart and personalized. It will be highly decentralized yet will manage identity, policies and permissions in an integrated cohesive and transparent manner across services.

By cobbling together a number of different services that exist today you could build something like this in a decentralized fashion. As various services integrate with each other it may simply emerge on its own. But is that how the desktop of the future will come about? Or will it be provided as a new application from one player – perhaps one with a lot of centralized market power and the ability to launch something like this on a massive scale? Or – just as with the previous desktop hits of the past, will it come from a little-known upstart with a disruptive technology? It’s hard to predict, but one thing is certain: it is going to happen relatively soon and will be an interesting process to watch.

Image via Arnaldo Licea

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