Are Windows, the MacOS, and Desktop Linux Obsolete?

Wednesday Mar 19th 2008 by Rob Enderle
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Welcome to the bright and shiny future of cloud computing. Apple is probably best positioned for this new world, but the truth is, right now leadership is unclear.

Major worldwide economic problems often speed up transitions as models that are failing are forced to fail more quickly, and emerging models that have significant economic advantages (they’re cheaper) get a substantial boost. We are entering such a time.

Although a recent eWeek Poll is indicating movement towards Vista with new hardware, it also identified a great deal of satisfaction with XP – suggesting IT is going to drag its feel. Windows feels exposed and is probably well past time that it was rethought.

Wal-Mart just booted Linux, and the OS hasn’t exactly been a poster child for growth. And the MacOS has never been more than a bit player in the enterprise, though the iPhone – thanks to the SDK – is suddenly getting a surprising amount of enterprise interest.

In addition, compelling new offerings like the Mojo Pack for enterprises, and a release from Pandigital for consumers, really have me thinking that the market is getting ready to make a big move. But it doesn’t yet know which way it is going to jump yet.

Remember DOS?

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Back before the IBM PC, and actually for much of the 80s, proprietary mainframe and mid-range computers were the way we did things. But, by the mid-90s the industry had moved and we mostly had UNIX doing the back office heavy lifting and Windows on the desktop. In about a decade the old proprietary platforms went from unbeatably dominant to niche players playing in ever smaller (though often very lucrative) niches.

To make the move it required a hardware-independent player of sufficient scope (Microsoft) so that they could be enhanced by an enterprise player of sufficient power (IBM) to drive the change. I maintain that if Microsoft had been stronger their partner could have been weaker and the same result would have occurred. By 1990 Microsoft had gained enough power to go it alone and actually stopped IBM from taking the market back.

There was only about five years from when the process really got underway until Microsoft could take off the gloves and take the market. Things appear to be capable of moving so much faster now.

Cloud Computing: One Key

From HP, to Microsoft, to Google, the world is taken with this idea of “Cloud Computing.” But what that really means is you no longer have to run a lot of things off of the client. Right now, if you think about it, you could probably cut your desktop operating costs significantly by moving to something like the Mojo Pack, which is currently one of the placeholders for full service cloud computing on the desktop.

Once you can leave your applications and data in the cloud you really don’t need much of a client and can move to something that is vastly easier to install, update, protect, and support.

I don’t think this is truly a thin client yet because our love for multi-media and the need to compress and decompress the data to optimize the limited network (particularly wireless network bandwidth) requires power at the client end right now, though a company called Teradici could help change this. In addition, we don’t yet have pervasive wireless, but a caching/syncing solution like that from Sharpcast could close that gap near-term.

Look at the PS3/Xbox 360, iPhone, and Pandigital Solutions

What really got me thinking about this was the Pandigital kitchen appliance announcement last week of an intelligent digital picture frame. This is a device that does a number of things that typically you would have used a PC for.

While the numbers for Pandigital are still small, if we were to start aggregating the “PC alternative” devices – from current generation gaming systems, to smart phones, to ever-smarter set top boxes – I think the total number is actually rather impressive.

Each of these represents a brand new look at the personal computer, with the Pandigital offering the extreme in terms of appliance-like experience. In the case of the PS3 and Xbox 360, these systems are partially supported by royalties (which could work in the PC space) and the systems actually improve the longer you have them up until (on a 5 year cycle) you have to replace them.

The iPhone has a different subsidy model but has a full SDK and will shortly be able to run an ever-increasing number of business applications and is centrally assured and managed by Apple. The end result should be the reliability and support costs of a phone with capabilities that grow to rival a PC, over time.

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In all cases these solutions are examples of rethinking what we used to think of as the personal computer. Pandigital is an embedded device, the iPhone is a stripped down version of the MacOS, the Xbox is a modified version of Windows, and the PS3 is a largely purpose-built proprietary platform. And all of these devices are easier to use than any standard desktop OS and they increasingly live off the cloud.

In addition, the Xbox, PS3, and iPhone have actually improved since they were launched. And, at least in the case of the gaming systems, it’s in Microsoft’s and Sony’s best interest not to obsolete them prematurely. The market has wanted to move to a 5-year hardware cycle for some time and a model that is somewhat like the game system model could actually do that.

Looking for the Trigger: Is it Google or Intel?

To make the market move we need someone to take a really big risk that has enough influence to actually move the market. Right now, the best bet is Google but there are vendors actively in the hunt for this and they range from HP, to Sun, to IBM. Google, however, is the only firm that appears to be aggressively looking at this from multi-market perspective and is approaching both consumers (who may be easier to move first) and business.

Typically you have to embrace the existing environment first and Google has kind of done that with search. They have struggled a bit with their hosted applications but they do seem to be improving and have their own smart phone platform due out shortly. They have figured out how to subsidize things successfully with advertising as well, suggesting they could hit the market with incredibly aggressive pricing. However, their enterprise site is weak and they’re light on hardware, suggesting their initial efforts may be less than stellar.

Intel, on the other hand, has their MID (Mobile Internet Device) platform coming out that (once accessorized) could create a good hardware platform for an emerging new general class of services-based product. Intel exists on both consumer and corporate segments and, while light on software, is dominant in their hardware segment. However, they don’t sell under their own brand and would need to push their solution through a number of firms. Fortunately they have most companies (including Apple) as customers, suggesting a multi-vendor plan isn’t out of the question.

Will Microsoft, Apple and Linux Miss the Train?

Microsoft has the Xbox on the consumer side and a variety of Windows derivative products on mobile and embedded offerings. In addition, as far as a new platform they have Surface, which is currently not positioned well for this opportunity but could be shifted.

They do seem to get that cloud computing is coming but don’t seem to be able to drive a .Net like effort to truly embrace it, and it could result in a vastly bigger change than the internet did (which almost bypassed them over a decade ago). It took Bill Gates himself to get Microsoft on track the last time and Bill is off doing something else this time.

Ray Ozzie talks a good game but there isn’t anyone in the world with Bill Gates’ clout and it may take that to catch this wave, given they won’t have as much time this decade. (It is moving faster and Google is substantially more powerful than Netscape ever was). As it was in 1995, however, this remains Microsoft’s market to lose, just like it was IBM’s two decades ago.

Linux is way out of position for this but many of the cloud services will run on it and Google is likely to use Linux as part of their solution. Intel also is exploring this for their MID (Mobile Internet Device), but the issue remains that you’d have to create an Apple-like experience and no one seems to want to put that level of work into something that someone else could easily copy. It is clear, if Google does this, it may have Linux as a starting point but won’t look or feel like Linux, in any way, when it comes out (it’ll probably be an even bigger departure than the MacOS is from UNIX).

It is clear that, with the iPhone, Apple is thinking about a major change in the OS. And were they to transition this concept to the PC as kind of a super iPhone the result would be revolutionary.

Apple is exploring the backend with their SDK handling process for the iPhone, which could be transitioned to a future Apple PC platform as well, and Apple already has most of their own core applications. As a result I think that Apple is, either intentionally or by accident (the iPod was really an accident), the best positioned right now for this new world.

Who Wins?

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I’m just messing with the major players but HP is in the hunt for this solution as well. They company has products from smart TVs to the widest selection of thin client computers to close this gap.

We may not even make the move this decade as sync solutions like those from Sharpcast, and virtualization solutions like the Mojo Pack give us something that is good enough. And there is nothing preventing a true breakthrough coming in (other than really long odds) from left field and surprising everyone.

I think there is a reasonable chance, given some of Ray Ozzie’s statements, that Microsoft is figuring this out and may ramp up before Google or Apple can complete their offerings and, given they are entrenched, Microsoft doesn’t necessarily have to be first. So I’d give them the edge but I would have given IBM the edge in the 80s and look how that turned out. And who would have figured that IBM would be entirely out of the IBM PC business two decades later?

We are on the forefront of massive change, my friends, and the recession is likely to make it happen very fast once someone, or something, pulls the trigger.

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