Linux, MacOS, and Windows 7: Is the Future of the Desktop Google, Cisco or the iPhone?

Thursday Aug 9th 2007 by Rob Enderle
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The race is on to control the desktop, with the winner likely the player who eliminates the importance of the OS.

This was an interesting week, Dell announced a series of desktop Linux advancements at Linux world, Lenovo stepped in to provide desktop Linux as well, Apple refreshed their iMac line to something less advanced than HP’s latest and Microsoft was not only all over LinuxWorld they were actually an honored guest.

I’ve been really thinking about the desktop of late. Windows Vista isn’t making much of a dent in the enterprise (which mostly seems to be saying “Windows XP is fine, leave us alone”). I think it’s time to really start looking at what the industry is signaling it wants. Strangely enough, I think what it wants is vastly closer to the iPhone than it is to anything else currently being sold, and that Google might actually get there first. (Though Microsoft still has the inside track).

Let’s take a look at LinuxWorld and desktop Linux, the new iMacs and Leopard, chat a bit about Windows 7, and look at what Google and Cisco appear to have in store for us.

LinuxWorld: Embracing Microsoft and Giving Desktop Linux a Chance

One of the strategies that Microsoft has used to great advantage is the strategy of embrace and extend. For some time they seemed to forget about what got them dominance on the desktop to begin with, and they were having a lot of difficulty with Linux. Certainly programs like “Get the Facts” were horridly flawed and seemed only to further accelerate Linux adoption. However, Microsoft has had a rather solid change of heart, and if you were at LinuxWorld you likely saw it in action.

They are actively embracing Linux and, for once, it seemed like Linux was embracing back. This could work for both sides, on Microsoft’s side it should allow them to move into more large scale server deployments, and for Linux it should provide for an easier path to the desktop. In both cases it gives IT buyers a less artificial choice between real alternatives as opposed to near religious beliefs.

In fact the near religious behavior I’ve come to know and hate about Linux and Open Source was largely unnoticed at LinuxWorld where people primarily seemed less focused on being Linux cheerleaders and more focused on making vendors actually prove they could do more than simply share code. Critical buyers help create better products. And if what I observed is any measure, the folks at LinuxWorld are likely going to be building some amazing things going forward. And, as strange as it seems, in that group is now Microsoft.

I still see one big problem for Linux on the desktop though. Red Hat is the most financially viable vendor, Novell has the best enterprise offering, and Ubuntu is the product we’d likely all prefer to use. Typically IT buyers are risk adverse and want one choice with all of the above, the financial stability of Red Hat, the product of Novell, and the user experience of Ubuntu.

However, in moving to Apple, I actually think they really want the user experience of the iPhone, and that is where Apple fell short with their new iMacs.

iMacs: Innovation by Intel

Apple has really been lagging on PC hardware of late. Their latest iMacs are basically old iMacs re-skinned so they reflect the advanced thermal efficiency of the new Intel platform. HP is actually closer to providing the iPhone experience. What is kind of funny is that when I point this out to Mac guys I get back something like “Steve Jobs says Touch is stupid on a PC.Watch this YouTube video and tell me if this isn’t something you’d expect on an iMac.

The closest thing in market is the HP Touchsmart as showcased by this video. And the closest thing out of market is Microsoft Surface as seen in this video. Taking from one of the videos, think of the possibilities. Compare these Apple Leopard, then look at the iPhone. Now look at what they should have launched.

It amazes me the number of people who have told me that, with a little improvement, their iPhone could replace their laptop (and they’d likely shift back to a desktop for office and home). I just can’t believe Apple is blind to this and think Steve is just trying to get Leopard out the door so he can shift resources to create an iPhone like PC (and iPod). Apple clearly could move into the enterprise but first they have to create a product as compelling for the desktop as they did with their phone.

Will Cisco or Google Be Your New Desktop Vendor of Choice?

Both companies understand that the future is a connected world and that very high speeds over the network will allow things to be done remotely that require a local PC today.

One new technology making the rounds in the Valley is from Teradici, a little company that may have made Google’s and Cisco’s dream of putting everything in the cloud a reality. They make a little part that will allow you to securely, and with minimal bandwidth, remote a full rich desktop experience over the network ,shifting all of the PC pain to a service provider. While I doubt they will remain independent for long, they are likely to have a huge impact on the future of our PCs at work and at home.

Google is initially more focused on the consumer, but clearly is building a business play in the background, while Cisco’s play is more blended, as their VoIP phones shift more and more capability from the desktop and their new set top boxes make home PCs redundant. p> At the core of Google’s strategy to displace Windows is not a PC, but a Web-based set of products that make the OS, any OS, trivial, and focus the advancement on the Web were the value, and the revenue (which will flow to Google) will reside.

For Cisco, because they are a hardware company, the goal is more end to end, and has at its core an appliance which may not actually run much software but which provides the majority of value, and thus captures the majority of related revenue from the desktop.

Both companies are executing very well right now, with Cisco’s next big push due in a few weeks and targeted at the home, and Google’s being teased as ‘almost any day now’ (but likely to be phone-based first).

I believe both vendors understand the need for a rich user interface (only a blind person would have missed the clear message the market sent when the iPhone came out, something that it is now clear Apple didn’t really expect either, given the new iMac’s shortcomings).

Wrapping Up: The Race is On

After thinking through what Apple did with the iPod and iPhone I think there is a real opportunity to make a major shift in the desktop. Microsoft, as the entrenched vendor, has the inside track but their next OS (Windows 7) isn’t expected until 2010 and that is a long time in this new Internet age, particularly given the low corporate demand for Vista.

Google and Cisco are coming hell bent for leather and HP, strangely enough, looks like they are setting up to make a run for this crown even if it means they have to modify Windows to do it. Think of what the iPhone did to CES, how fast the iPod (once it ran on Windows) dominated that segment, and how badly people seem to want a better PC experience.

There is every indication that, with the right solution (and solution with an emphasis on user experience is the right term), the right well funded vendor could cut through the PC market like a hot knife through butter. IT is already having problems keeping out iPhones. Think what would happen if employees started demanding next generation iPhone like PCs.

One other technology you may want to have in your back pocket is the Mojopac, which allows for an IT application set to run securely on a guest PC with minimal support impact on IT. Think of it as virtualization without the cost (in money or performance). Also think of it as another technology that could change the way we view PCs.

Of course I still look at the Intel vision for the UMPC (in this video) and begin to wonder if we aren’t seeing the beginning of the end for our even caring what OS is on the device. I don’t know about you, but for a tech guy, this is my dream and I still wonder if that dream will be delivered by Cisco or Google – who might make a dream like this a reality.

The future is coming on a bullet train folks, better suck it up and get ready.

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