2011: The Year Personal Computing Will Reinvent Itself

Everyone knows the Windows desktop monolith is breaking into pieces. Yes, Microsoft is still making money, mainly from the big rollover to Windows 7 -- but where does Redmond go from here? And which alternatives are truly viable?

This is the year when we'll start to find out. New, overlapping client computing paradigms are popping up all over the place. The overriding theme -- even from Microsoft -- is that whatever personal computing device you use, desktop or mobile, serves only as a temporary access point for data, preferences, and applications. The permanent home for your computing life, to the degree that it exists, will be on a server in the cloud or in your own data center.

[ For more wild speculation, see Galen Gruman's "How mobile will kill off Microsoft Office." | Here's what it feels like to live in the Chrome OS. | The InfoWorld Test Center's review of new VDI solutions concludes that desktop virtualization may not be as hard as you think. ]

None of this means that the trusty old laptop and desktop PC are going away. Mainframes and minicomputers haven't disappeared, either. But I can't recall a time, including the dawn of the PC era, when no fewer than four operating systems -- Android, Chrome OS, iOS, and Ubuntu Linux -- all emerged as viable contenders for some substantial portion of personal computing at around the same time. Talk about tipping points.

How is the immediate future of personal computing shaping up? Here's the 20,000-foot view.

Microsoft's hybrid cloud
With the advent of Office 365 and Steve Ballmer's announcement of a massive shift to cloud development, Microsoft finally clued us in on its basic plan for the future: a gradual move to Microsoft-hosted services in the cloud. Office 365 leaves Office on the desktop but moves Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync (formerly Communications Server) to Microsoft's huge new data centers built to deliver cloud services. You pay one per-user subscription rate for the whole hybrid desktop/cloud deal.

It's unclear exactly where this leads. There's nothing wrong with beefy Windows desktops for those who need them, but there's also increasing recognition that the full cost of Windows and Office -- plus the endless endpoint security, maintenance, and upgrade overhead -- doesn't make sense for entire organizations. Yes, Office 365 comes in a version without desktop Office, so light-duty users can run Office Web Apps only, but the price is high. And Office 365's support for mobile devices is weak -- as is Microsoft's preferred mobile solution, Windows Phone 7, at least for business purposes. When Office 365 comes out of beta this year, more may be revealed.

Google's total cloud
Chrome OS was released in beta late last year to largely lukewarm reviews. After all, it's basically a browser -- or more accurately, the Chrome browser as a shell for a Linux kernel intended to run on low-cost Web appliances. For productivity software, you use the browser-based Google Docs, Zoho, or one of several other alternatives. You are truly living in the cloud. That's great from one standpoint: If your Chrome OS device is smashed to bits, your data is safe in the stratosphere. But without some offline capability, the Chrome OS solution is not practical.

That capability is coming soon. According to Google, it's all about supporting the HTML5 offline features AppCache and Local Storage. This works on a Web-app-by-Web-app basis. Already, for example, the very slick New York Times app in the Chrome Web Store works offline. Google says offline capability will return to Google Docs in early 2011 ("return," because Docs dropped its Google Gears offline capability last year). A Google spokesperson told me that, along with being able to work without an Internet connection on cached data, you will be able to start applications offline.

Few people may make a Chrome OS device their primary computing device, but for travelers and light-duty workers content to use Web apps only, it should be a reasonable solution, especially as HTML5 apps gain greater functionality.

Mobile madness
No one would make a smartphone their primary computing device. Or would they? The Motorola Atrix calls that truism into question. Unveiled at CES last week, the Atrix is a sweet Android phone -- that plugs into a special docking station you connect to a keyboard and screen. It's a phone -- no, it's a desktop CPU! Of course, your choice of Android productivity apps is pretty slim, and even with a keyboard and screen, using Documents to Go may be an exercise in frustration. But with Android pads arriving en masse this year, you can bet more and more serious software will come.

Speaking of pads, last August, InfoWorld executive editor Galen Gruman wrote "An iPad at the office: Can it work as a PC?" Galen's answer was a qualified yes for workers whose lives revolve around email, Web access, and basic office productivity work. Since he wrote that piece, Apple has improved its iWork suite, which has become a model for how rich mobile apps can be. Plus, the Citrix client for iPad, iOS, and Android does pretty well running Windows apps remotely, as long as you connect over Wi-Fi rather than 3G.

By the end of this year, the application picture is going to look a lot richer for pads, and their role as laptop replacement will be more secure. And we haven't even seen the iPad 2 yet.

Desktop Linux
This dark horse is looking better and better. Desktop Linux doesn't change the desktop paradigm, but it sure lightens the endpoint security burden. Personally, I'm an Ubuntu fan, although I wouldn't unleash it on an office full of users without training -- or without having IT lock down a slew of options so that folks don't get into trouble. The improvements in usability and hardware compatibility over the past few years are hugely impressive. Yes, there's the perennial "where are the applications?" question, but honestly, if Firefox, some variation of OpenOffice, and the Evolution email client work for you, what other desktop apps do you need? If you hadn't noticed, most enterprise apps are delivered through the browser.

However, there is always that legacy Windows app that won't work on Linux or that pesky Web app that demands ActiveX. Plus, you need fully trained -- or fully zealous -- system administrators to keep the whole show running. The OpenOffice debacle alone is enough to give anyone pause. The uncertainties associated with going the desktop Linux route may be too much for many enterprises. On the other hand, for a certain class of user that primarily confines its activities to Web apps and light-duty productivity -- why not? At the very least, lean and mean desktop Linux can give old hardware ill-equipped to run Windows 7 a new and useful life.

Desktop virtualization
Just as Chrome OS and Google Apps upload your computing life to the cloud, desktop virtualization lobs it into your own data center. In the classic VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) scenario, you compute using a cheap, terminal-like thin client while your entire Windows desktop environment resides on a rack of muscular servers with everyone else's desktop environment. Securing and maintaining endpoints is vastly easier.

But Windows licensing costs -- not to mention the cost of virtualization software and compute-heavy server hardware -- have prevented desktop virtualization from taking off. Yes, as the InfoWorld Test Center revealed in last week's comparative review of new VDI solutions, Kaviza, NComputing, and Pano Logic are taking some of the cost and fuss out of VDI. But what about mobility? The high-bandwidth requirement of VDI renders remote laptop computing impractical.

The client hypervisor is one solution to the mobile problem: The entire desktop environment downloads to whatever client hardware you're using and runs in a virtual machine, which isolates it from endpoint security vulnerabilities. When you're done with your session, the client VM syncs with the server. This requires regular-strength (rather than thin) client hardware, of course. And Microsoft has not exactly encouraged desktop virtualization because it charges full price for every user. It's enough to make you consider combining desktop Linux with desktop virtualization.

Step away from that desktop
One way of looking at this new landscape is that desktop virtualization relocates personal computing to the private cloud, while Google spirits everything away to the public cloud -- and Microsoft is trying to split the difference between its own public cloud and the desktop. Applications on smartphones and pads are cloudy by nature, because these devices lack the capacity to run big apps and store big data, which would be too risky to carry around everywhere anyway. Sorry, folks, you won't escape cloud services any more than you can live without Internet access today.

The writing has been on the wall for the one-size-fits-all desktop for a while. It's too expensive and demands too many IT resources. The transition will be long-running, of course, and conventional PCs will still be needed, but the whole point is that different people require different client solutions -- and the same people should be able to use different devices with access to the same functionality and data at different times. Apple, for one, acknowledges this many-sided future in its apparent plans to merge Mac OS X and iOS.

What of the implications for IT? On the one hand, the explosion of new personal computing devices and OSes sounds like a nightmare because an unprecedented diversity of platforms will need to be managed. That pain is already being felt. On the other, the consumerization of IT will ease the sting, because users will be able to take unprecedented responsibility for their own apps and devices. However it all shakes out, you can bet that after this year in particular, our computing lives will never be the same. Bank on it.

This article, "2011: The year personal computing was reinvented," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter and on your mobile device at infoworldmobile.com.

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