Friday, October 28, 2011

Will the Desktop ever be dead?

Though the pundits have been proclaiming the death of the Desktop for quite a few years now (Virtualization), the desktop has continued to survive and doesn’t show any sign of weakness, if not gaining strength. If a quad core processor with 8 GB of RAM, top of the line video chip and a 1920 x 1080 HD screen can be made available in a 5 pound laptop, why would people not use it? Why would people abandon such a rich user interface and awesome processing power? It will be naive to expect people to give it up, be it Linux or Windows.

The topic "Death of the desktop" has been given new lease of life, thanks to some of the cloud computing gurus, who predict that after "everything" moves to the cloud, the user needs only a browser, and hence they don't need a powerful desktop. They seem to confuse the browser and the desktop.

If the browser becomes the all-in-one program, where the user edits all documents and presentations, works with audio and video files, writes code and performs myriad other tasks which are today performed by separate applications, then that browser would be a humongous amalgamation of all the applications and would require all the processing power in the world to run. Performing all tasks inside a browser simply means that the user has only one application to deal with, but it doesn't mean the need for processing power will go down.

The question "will the desktop ever be dead" itself is silly. It's like asking "will the computer ever be dead". All this debate about desktop is simply fueled by unjustified hatred of Microsoft. In an effort to unseat Microsoft's dominant position, more and more features are being crammed in to the browser, so that it becomes the de-facto operating system. Many people, including those who work in the technology industry, have this mistaken notion that if the software is accessible on the internet (for e.g., Microsoft Office 365 or Google Docs), then it must be running on the server (or the cloud!). No, such software is written in JavaScript, downloaded by the browser and executed in the local machine. The software is skinny, but so are the features! In the future, when the time comes, where the software downloaded from the internet has the same features as the desktop installed software, the browser would have bulked up and will be as heavy as the operating system.

The "death of the desktop" philosophy is counter-intuitive to the evolution of the tech industry and consumer behavior. The hardware (CPUs, storage, network) capacity has increased manifold over the years. And so is the software's complexity and the users' hunger to do more and more things sitting on the couch.

Of course, the hardware will change its form factor. The processing power of the main frames became available in the desktops, which is now available in a laptop or a netbook, and very soon it will be available in the pads and the slates. It doesn't mean that Desktop is dead, it just means those devices are the new Desktops. Our future is filled with increasingly powerful devices of all shapes and sizes. If you find evidence to the contrary, let me know.

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