Divining the Future of the Client Desktop Environment

Thin computing. Software as a service. Does the bell toll for the computer desktop environment as we know it?

There's a trend toward software as a service (SaaS), with applications moving off the desktop and onto the Web to enable thin computing-or at least a hybrid variant of it. But is this good for the enterprise? And what does it mean for the desktop?

The Web is a kind of equalizer, as platforms go.... With Java, Sun promised "Write once, run anywhere", but with SaaS, perhaps it's the Internet that's delivering. Whether your client is running Windows, Linux, MacOS or something else from a list that includes a variety of mobile-oriented options, the application environment is becoming more dependent on the browser and less on the client OS. Java has helped with this, no doubt, but arguably not quite as much as AJAX. Those who remember Web 1.0 applications recall numerous page loads and reloads. Web 2.0 made that a thing of the past. Online applications are not nearly as kludgy as they once were, and they've stepped beyond e-mail and breezed past document editing to now include much more complex tasks, such as image editing with applications like Picnik.

As Google and others from Salesforce to MyMilemarker launch more online applications, users are increasingly pushed toward the Web. But even though Google has been steadily moving into the SaaS model, it is also now making its online applications work offline. Since late 2006, ZOHO has offered a plug-in for MS Office 2007 to help tie its online applications in with everyone's favorite office suite. Desktopize (also partnering with ZOHO) specializes in making Web applications look like and run on your desktop, and Firefox 3.0 will support offline Web apps by caching data. The Open Source Zimbra online groupware and collaboration suite now offers an alpha version of its desktop software. For its part, Microsoft is beginning to integrate some online features into its offline office suite.

So, online or off? The offline tools are adding online features, and the online applications are striving to work on the desktop. Is the grass just greener on the other side, or do we not know what we want yet? Either way, the lines are getting blurrier. What is clear is a shift in where our software resides: desktop, Web or both.

Changing Work Environment

Since we nixed the days of the "smoke-filled room" and began ditching the IBM Selectric typewriter, the way we work has also changed. One might argue that our current approach to computer interfaces grew largely out of single-user environments, where the PC was not interconnected except via Sneakernet - the practice of using removable media to physically transport files from one computer to another. While we have moved on to not only networked but Internet-worked environments, the user interface is largely unchanged. By and large, we do our work individually and then move it to the collaborative stage: first work, then collaborate. Some of the software changes we're seeing today involve a shift toward working more collaboratively as a single process rather than as a two-stage one.

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The Facebook platform is seen as a significant development, reinforced by its recent acquisition of Parakey, "a platform for building applications that merge the best of the desktop and the Web." Facebook, itself an online application with more than 31 million active users,(as of August 1, 2007) makes it an attractive platform for entrepreneurs to reach those users. Users, that is, those who spend a lot of time there, learn that one of the keywords of Web 2.0 is "share."

This intermingling of online and offline software models, combined with a shift toward collaborative work environments, is colliding with the way we've historically used our computer desktops, yielding implications for the future of the desktop environment itself.

For example, Red Hat's involvement with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project will have a Red Hat-based OS but a more collaborative user interface. While the project is based in altruism, CTO and VP of Engineering Brian Stevens says that investing in paradigms like this will produce a winner long-term for a next-generation laptop.

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