by Brent Toderash

Divining the Future of the Client Desktop Environment

Aug 15, 20079 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsWeb Development

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.

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.

While the overall computing trend may be to move more and more applications onto the Web, there are a number of attendant issues to be resolved before the enterprise can move freely in that direction as well. Perhaps Ballmer is right…or perhaps instead, the type of hybrid model that will evolve will see online applications running in much the same way but served within the corporate intranet.

Perhaps Microsoft can only lose market share…but it may also be able to shore up the enterprise desktop market it already has by making the opposite play to a company like ZOHO, where the desktop/Web integration is approached from the desktop out rather than from the Web in. In painting the distinction this way, though, the orientation is user-centric rather than group-centric. We’ll see how it plays out.

For now, the battle for the desktop may have taken a significant turn, with the application platform becoming less and less relevant to the discussion as our conception of the desktop environment begins to change. The enterprise for the time being is most likely to hold to the status quo and slowly add some Web-enabled services as imagined by Microsoft…but there are already some early adopters to be watching out for. Concerning all the moving toward collaboration and sharing, there are still times when you want to be left alone to get some work done. For those times, surely someone along the way will come up with a virtual Do Not Disturb sign that works better than those in the real world.


Brent Toderash is a freelance writer with a background as an owner and manager in Internet and IT consulting. He maintains his blog somewhat regularly at