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?

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A Next-Generation Environment

What will the next-generation desktop OS look like? Will it be merely a wrapper for running a browser, or something more? As important as Web enablement may be, and as near-ubiquitous as Internet access is, there will still be a need for a client OS that does more than connect to a server. Perhaps an early example can be found in OLPC's Sugar, a version of Red Hat Enterprise 6 that includes a near-familiar view of the Gnome desktop. Primarily, though, Sugar sports a new approach to the user interface, one that more intuitively reflects a collaborative work environment.

Sugar is likely more evolution than revolution in its awareness of the environment in which device operates, notifying users when other users are in proximity and can be invited to collaborate. (To see Sugar in action, an emulation is available or it can be viewed on YouTube along with a video of its social features). Although OLPC's purpose is educational, it seems apparent that the same approach could be well-received in collaborative work or project-oriented environments.

Red Hat's Stevens says, "I really don't believe creating a Windows-like desktop on open-source software is a winner-there will never be a better Windows than Windows. We're looking at a next-generation paradigm. Open-source software is threatening to Windows Office productivity; collaboration has moved to the cloud, and the desktop is being redefined by the Internet, by social sites and collaboration." Red Hat has been talking about its release of the Global Desktop with a new client computing road map, so evidently it's ready now to take serious aim at the desktop. As to the plan for the future, Stevens says, "We aim to skip a generation, even though currently the desktop looks a lot the same." The new paradigm or next generation will be "more focused on software as a service; we can create a winner there. There is no incumbent in that space, so it'll be wide open." He also noted that "rich integration" between SaaS and the client is the key to winning in that space. So far, that paradigm isn't really evident in the marketplace.

Surveying the landscape, there are more Mac users around these days, even in business environments. With easy-to-use distributions like Ubuntu circulating now, more people are also moving their desktops to Linux-people who would not have considered such a move two years ago. Given the increasing popularity of SaaS, it may be that the real winners in the application space may be the ones who are the most client-agnostic.

"Client-agnostic" is not the first thing that leaps to mind when you think about the strategy that Microsoft is likely to take. CEO Steve Ballmer said recently, "For software plus services, the time is now" and gave a brief explanation of Microsoft's strategy as more of a hybrid model that will evolve over the next year. The difference for Microsoft seems to be software plus rather than software as, meaning it's less akin to a thin client than what some of the purely Web-based services would allow-and it's a strategy that makes sense for Microsoft, given its market share. The software giant is naturally attempting to keep as many users as possible in the (Microsoft) environments they're using now.

At least an aspect of online services within software must be grappled with at some level. "Microsoft has to embrace it, the question is how aggressively because they have so much to lose. It's highly disruptive to their existing portfolio," Stevens observed. "All they can do now is lose market share; it's a tenuous position to be in."

Proceed With Caution

The lure of Web apps may be attractive for the enterprise. Among many possibilities, the SaaS model could reduce the amount of resources necessary on the desktop and ease the support burden. But on the other hand, new problems arise, most obviously in the area of security. Do you really want your legal department's documents being modified online and stored in a provider's data center on its servers? Moreover, do you want all your staff able to access these documents from home, or are there certain ones that you'd prefer remained on the corporate LAN only? Despite accusations that keeping the corporate data center is an excuse for IT managers to keep their staff (and their jobs), if it's a case of consumer technologies invading corporate computing, there's good reason to be wary of the legal, policy and security ramifications. Indeed, these seemed to be prominent concerns in UC Berkeley's consideration of SaaS not long ago.

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