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Bob Stout

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Windows 7 and the future of desktop computing

October 24, 2009

A lot has been happening lately on the desktop computing front. Everyone’s been talking about Windows 7, with the usual partisan kudos and brickbats depending on who you listen to. Yet, there has been other news, not as well covered, which I believe to be much more significant.

For decades before I retired, I worked with Windows. These days I work mostly with Linux. However, I’ve been making enemies in both the Windows and Linux camps recently – and the Mac folks are none too happy with me either. You see, for much of my working life, I was paid to think about the future and old habits die hard. In the introduction to my e-book, Geek-Free™ Linux, I wrote:

“The history of computing has been marked by seismic shifts in technology. These shifts have been heralded by the emergence of new technologies that change the fundamental ways people think of computing. At each point, the existing large companies either adapt or die, but the change is always messy and often not pretty. We live in such a time. The desktop metaphor used on PC has been around for three decades. The paradigm of independent personal computers is being challenged by new network technologies and cloud computing. Just as with IBM before it, Microsoft’s position will eventually fall before newer and more agile competition. Whether it’s Linux or some other desktop OS, net-based cloud computing or some other technology, the only constant in the industry is change.”

Recent news articles indicate I’m no longer alone in my observations. Consider the following articles:

  • Rob Enderle wrote an article on Tech News World entitled “Windows 7 and What Comes After the PC”. In it, he points to a convergence of new technologies which will radically change desktop computing as we know it.

  • A press release last week announced that IBM and Canonical (the publishers of the Ubuntu family of Linux distributions) will jointly develop a cloud computing package using IBM servers and Ubuntu desktops.

  • Finally, Forbes magazine recently ran an article entitled “A Window Into Microsoft's Conundrum”. In it, the threat of the cloud computing model to Microsoft’s business was discussed. Although the author wasn’t overly alarmed by the cloud’s immediate threat, the tone of the article clearly pointed to the perception of traditional desktop OSs as dinosaurs. And such perceptions can drive paradigm shifts just as surely as technology!

If all this is accurate, and I believe it is, where does that leave us? Well, the good news is that I don’t see the demise of desktop OSs for technical workstations in the near future. However, I firmly believe clouds will take over for personal and business applications. If that happens, who will win and who will lose? All current desktop OSs stand to lose. Windows will suffer the most since it’s most heavily dependent on business and personal users and has shown little agility and perception in adapting to the rapidly changing technology driving the cloud revolution. Linux and Mac will suffer less since they are widely used in technical workstations.

Who will the winners be? It’s too early to tell. An obvious choice on everyone’s lips is Google. Certainly the new Chrome OS is poised to take over the desktop applications market from Windows. The new IBM/Canonical alliance has the potential to be a strong contender as well due to IBM's strong support of Linux and Canonical's top spot among Linux distributions. Which players will float to the top may be influenced by the inexorable progress of Posix OSs (i.e. Unix, Linux, Solaris, et al) in taking over the data centers. It's already happened at Amazon and Google and virtualization is what's driving the progress of clouds.

Whoever the players may be, I believe all this will play out over the next decade. Looking two or more decades down the road is anyone's guess. All of the enabling technology and infrastructure isn't in place yet and the future will depend perhaps more on efficient use and allocation of communications spectrum than hardware or software technology, per se.

Personally, as soon as I retired, I began migrating from Windows to Linux. I already knew from experience that Linux has been more reliable, secure, and hassle-free for me, but that’s not the reason I’m leaving Windows. The reason I’m migrating to Linux is that I can’t justify spending any more time and money in a dead end technology like a desktop OS. Linux works well for what I do and doesn’t cost me anything to run it. While I’m waiting for the future to arrive, that’s a pretty good recommendation.

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