Do We Need A Desktop OS Anymore?

In a word, no. We may be reaching the point where the desktop OS is no longer important, eclipsed by the developments of the browser and ironically a victim of better integration by Microsoft and others.

Photo @ Creative Commons by kerplunk kerplunk

Yet we are all huddling around the news feeds coming out of Build 2011 as we try to figure out what Microsoft is attempting with Windows 8 and Metro. My prediction is that this will become the OS/2 of the modern era: an OS that is so elegant but instantly obsolete by events, designed for the wrong chip (the mobile ARM CPUs) and based on a cellphone design ethos that no one could care less about. Yeah, but it has a great new set of APIs!

It wasn’t all that long ago that Internet Explorer became almost indistinguishable from Windows Explorer. And with the rise of Chromebooks and how much of our time is spent online, the days of the particular desktop OS is almost irrelevant now.

Remember when the desktop OS did things like keep track of directories, protect us from viruses (and Windows still doesn’t really do that all that well), make copies of files to removable media, and handle printing? Who really cares about any of that stuff anymore? Yes, I know I still can’t print my Web pages out with any kind of fidelity. But is that the browser’s fault or my OS?

Now that you can get gigabytes of free file storage in the cloud, do you really care what is on your hard drive? Well, some of us dinosaurs (and I count myself among them) still cling to our hard drives but soon they will be totems from another era, much the way many of you look upon 5 inch floppy disks, or even 8 inch ones if you can recall back that far. Wow, we could carry an entire 360 kB of something around with us! (Of course, we didn’t have mp3s or videos either, but still.) And all this cloud storage is happening as hard drives are getting so cheap that they will be giving them away in cereal boxes soon: a 2 TB drive can be had for less than $50.

Meanwhile, Adobe next week is announcing a slew of features in the next version of Flash (I can’t tell you about them quite yet, sorry). They fully intend Flash to take over the kinds of OS-like services that I mentioned above (ditto on the protect us from malware issue too, at least so far). And Google is trying mightily to rejigger HTML with its Dart Web programming language. And VMware has a new version of its View too, which is probably the OS that I really will end up spending most of my time with going forward. Whatever comes of these efforts, it almost doesn’t matter whether we are running Windows or Mac or Linux. Because we don’t need them anymore for our online lives.

Now stop and look over that last paragraph. Whom have we trusted for the next OS? It isn’t Microsoft, and it isn’t Apple. It is a bunch of folks from the valley that have never built an OS before (well, give Google half credit). Think about that for a moment.

Back at the dawn of the computing era in the 1980s we all wrote dBase apps (and saved them on those darn floppies too). Then we moved up to use Lotus Notes, before the Web took root. Then we branched out in a dozen different directions, using all sorts of programming languages that used HTTP protocols. That was the beginning of the end for the desktop OS.

Now we’ll still have desktops of one sort or another. And yes, Windows isn’t going away, much as Microsoft is determined to pry every last copy of XP from our cold, shaking hands. But when Adobe, Google and VMware gets done with their stuff, it won’t matter what will be running on them.

2 thoughts on “Do We Need A Desktop OS Anymore?

  1. I could not disagree more. Cloud computing with the hip new thing for a minute, but in my experience people are running the opposite direction now that the novelty wore off. Why? First of all, people are starting to become aware of the level of data-mining and domestic spying that we are subjected to, and we are beggining to feel a social backlash where even previously novice Windows users are taking an interest in their security….Installing Noscript and Ghostery, maybe even trying their hand at Linux and picking up a book on networking + python.

    Second, There is no real improvement in quality. A movie streaming from the web cannot perform ‘better’ than one in your physical/digital possession. It can however perform a lot worse if the connection is bad. Besides ISPs doing everything they can to limit and slow down our bandwidth to the extent allowable by law….and sometimes by a bit more…neither our ISPs nor the desktop vendors will be compliant in making our world one that is based on the cloud.

    Third. While it is neat that you can stream video games, which allow you to play newer games on older hardware or on light ‘mobile’ hardware….It is never going to be suitable for hardcore gamers. How many people do you know that are willing to spend $30 a month for gaming subscriptions, but will not spend $500-$600 on a quasi suitable last generation gaming rig? Few. If they do, they are just spoiled. Even if people were willing to spend the money just to play it on a tablet or netbook on the road, it would probably be a supplement rather than a primary medium. Why? Because in hardcore gaming PING matters. If you can get the slightest hint of an edge in latency, nomatter how small, the gamers will take it. Streaming games means higher lantency between you and the controls, and even higher latency between you and the game…..not acceptable, accept for very casual gaming that even mobile hardware can probably run natively soon. Cloud gaming is not going to take over in the next 50 years. if ever.

    What about for documents? I think online storage is pretty popular. However, you are fooling yourself if you believe Dropbox and Ubuntu1 are people’s primary files. Especially with awareness of data-mining and remote spying and hacking (thanks to Anonymous), people are not going to simply trust a corporate solution with their sensitive data. They might use it to share music, to move files to another location, to access a few things on the road, maybe to backup family photos that might suffer if there is an outage….but there are certain things that will always be on a local secure drive and not be surrendered to the cloud where somebody could erase everything just like your bank account if you were to somehow get on someone’s bad list.

    Running apps on the cloud? What is the point? It would have to be a whole lot cheaper to make up for not having it natively. It is not like hard drive space is scarce. Even SSDs will soon be in TBs. Who cares about a small bit of space? Who wants their device to be nothing but a paperweight when they go camping or drop out of range on a dirt road? Not me.

    Even in 2650, I bet that the personal computer will still be around….if a lot smaller.

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