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10/29/2009
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Is The Desktop PC Doomed?

The rise of Web-based apps, virtualization, and a crop of powerful mobile devices have the traditional PC desktop on the run.

Well, is it? If all the buzzwords about cloud computing, Web apps, software as a service (SaaS), the free desktop, and the rise of netbooks and tablet PCs, are to be believed, it may well be.

The truth, I suspect, is more modest. What looms for the desktop as we know it is not the end, but rather death and then transfiguration. The desktop PC is set to go through a grand mutation of the form that will expand its reach rather than kill its current incarnation(s) outright. It may be the end of the desktop as we know it, but also the birth of many more desktops. As Roger Ebert said about the James Bond archetype during the post-Soviet era, the sun hasn't set on England yet -- but it's getting mighty dark out.

This will be a survey of the desktop as we have come to know it lately, and as it changes, evolves -- and, quite possibly, dies and reincarnates in new and unexpected forms.

The Balkanization Of The Desktop

In his blog post about Windows 7 RTM, Alexander Wolfe made a comment that can be seen as either a lament or exultation:

"Face it, we're at the end of the beginning of the Internet era. And old-fashioned, desktop OSes won't be all that relevant in a world of Web-host applications (aka SaaS) running on Netbooks or Apple iTouch Tablets."

The question is: How much of what we all do will be like that? It's easy to forget that there are still plenty of people whose work is grounded in the non-Web world, who don't use netbooks, and who still think of fruit when they hear the word Macintosh. So we have to ask: whose last great desktop is this?

We can draw a distinction, or, rather, trace a divide. On one side we have users who are and will remain desktop people. Most of them could be described as the casual Microsoft Office crowd, those who use the desktop because it's what they're used to, and what they get the best results from. A fair number are people who cannot get their work done any other way except on the desktop -- e.g., graphic designers, engineers, folks who live in Photoshop, AutoCAD, Quark Xpress or Maya. Those high-end desktop folks aren't ditching those apps for the Web anytime soon, if ever.

On the other side are people who can, or have, made the jump to the "new desktop" of the Web or the mini-device. Some of them are people who work in managed environments -- i.e., they have had this sea change in the way they work imposed on them. Others got their feet wet in such a world; they see the "heavy desktop" as being an option, not a necessity.

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