Desktop computers changing, not dying

Why the desktop won't fade into history

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There's been a lot of dying technology predicted lately. The death of the desktop. The death of the PC (or, in more market-friendly terms, the "post-PC Era"). The death of Windows. The death of the mouse... you name it, if it's desktop-connected, its demise been predicted in the last couple of months.

So much anger has been leveled at the desktop operating systems and the PC, it really makes me wonder what the PC did to tick so many people off. Seriously, it's not like it ripped you off and then asked the government for a bailout, right?

Be that as it may, it hasn't stopped lots of pundits from firing off obituaries about that which is desktop, apparently brought on by the rise of the tablet and smartphone platforms and the growth of cloud- and datacenter-based computing.

On some level, I get this. After all, I myself have predicted that the traditional Linux desktop may not end up looking like we all thought, with native applications being replaced by a browser-based interface. There's a lot of merit in this idea, as HTML5 becomes increasingly more prevalent (just today, Salesforce said it would be shifting to HTML5).

But we all need to be a little more careful with our language, and if I am guilty of being careless, then let's see if I can correct my meaning. What I and others are describing is not the death of the desktop operating system, nor the "traditional" PC form factor. A more web-oriented platform does not negate the operating system. Something has to be running underneath that browser, whether Windows, Linux, or OS X. The operating system doesn't just go away.

What does happen in a truly web-enabled world is the operating system layer becoming more commoditized and less important to the end user, kind of like the system BIOS on PCs today. I know there are differences between BIOS on our computers today, but that's because I'm a very nerdy person. Most people don't know the difference between BIOS systems nor do they care because they don't need to.

Operating systems will sort of be like that. They will become Just Working layers in the stack that drives your device. Not completely gone, however: the way each OS will implement and display web apps will have vastly different looks and feel, so there will be differentiating selling points between each one.

But there are a lot of factors that may prevent such a cloud utopia that runs only on tablets and smartphones. There are simply too many good reasons why the desktop will always be around.

To be clear on my language again: when I say desktop, I am referring to the typical box/monitor/keyboard/mouse machines that are used to run OS X, Windows, and Linux today. These can be PCs, laptops, and notebooks. (And before you argue PC with me, Ken Hess, this is the definition I choose to use for the purpose of this commentary.)

With those parameters in mind, here's why I don't think any desktop platform we have today is going to go away.

Form Factor. Despite the decreasing size of our communications, there will always be a need to create content that's more than 140 characters in length. That means a keyboard, at least. Even when I used the iPad exclusively for a week, I had to have a Bluetooth keyboard. As soon as you have that requirement, you provide a need for the current desktop form factors, as defined above.

Physics. Another good reason why mobile devices aren't going to completely kill the desktop off lies in the Physical Laws of the Universe. And you can't get much more certain than that. Brian Cox cleverly points this out:

There are some issues with the actual physics involved in humanity’s current technology that prevent the mobile processor from performing at the level of demands of the desktop. Our processors are, unfortunately, still based on electricity. This causes heat. The smaller those little wires are made, the more they heat up. At the computer capacity of the dumbed-down cell phone, this is not a problem.

But try something more strenuous, Cox argues, and mobile processors are just going melt like buttah. You can argue, of course, that mobile devices are not going to need this kind of power, since the real work is done elsewhere, but sometimes that isn't feasible.

Weird stuff. That's because sometimes you are going to need a platform that is flexible and powerful enough to do some pretty heavy lifting. Tablets and smartphones can do that kind of analysis, but they have to be connected to a supercomputer somewhere to pull it off. Shazam is a perfect example of this: on my Android phone, all the apps does is capture the sound clip and sends it off to a datacenter somewhere. It's the datacenter systems that do the real work, shunting the title and artist info back to my phone in just a few moments.

That's good for pre-defined jobs--"find song title," "provide restaurant reviews," that sort of thing--but what about new tasks that don't fit so neatly? This morning, for instance, I had to convert some Ogg Video screencasts to MP4 format. Even if there was an app for that, neither my iPad or Android device has the memory or the processing power to handle such a task. I had to install ffmpeg and run a specific command-line to get the output format and quality I needed. Try that on a mobile device.

Telecoms. Then there's that pesky reliability on the online connection. Right now, Internet connections in Western countries are relatively plentiful and cheap. If we were to shift to a completely cloud/datacenter model, how long do you think this situation will last? I can easily see a situation where increased demand will start pushing connection costs higher. And there's the 4,835,049,149 people who aren't connected to the Internet. For them, the desktop will always have to be a gateway to technology, unless the plan is to make them wait for a cell phone tower to be built in that village down the road.

Paranoia. One of the nice things about a desktop is that it's much harder to steal than my mobile devices. Sure, it can be done, once someone gets past my laser-armed robotic guard dogs and cuts the titanium chain on my Linux box, but it's a lot easier to simply snatch my mobile device if I leave it lying around somewhere. Which is why there's nothing financial or work-related saved on my mobile devices. Which brings me to...

Tequila Bars. Or bars in general, which apparently are frickin' Kryptonite as far as prying an iPhone prototype away from an Apple employee goes. Seriously people, it's called the Devil's brew for a reason!

Stupid Business Models. There's a lot of potential in cloud-based and web-app platforms for really cool stuff, don't get me wrong. But ultimately it's got to be affordable/profitable for developers to use.

So when I read things like Russell Beattie's missive about the high costs of developing in Google App Engine, I have to wonder why Google seems intent on making it so difficult for small development operations to join the party. Are they hogging all of the app content for themselves, or just their closest vendor friends?

Don't read this and think I'm a Luddite. I have a lot of hope that the mobile sector will provide a level of connection and computation to consumers that the desktop never could. But to say mobile will ultimately cause the death of the desktop is just plain wrong.

The desktop as we know it may change... evolution is sort of like that. But become extinct? I think there's too many reasons why that simply won't happen. Even tequila.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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