Is the Windows Business Desktop Dying?

Once upon a time, you couldn't get fired for buying IBM. We all used to use Internet Explorer. And today, many of us still think that Windows is the only business desktop. But just as IBM and IE are no longer unassailable, I think the days of the Windows business desktop hegemony may be numbered.

No, I don't think my beloved Linux is finally going to become the desktop of choice. What's going to start to loosen the Windows desktop stranglehold is a combination of factors.

First, there's the rise of tablet and smartphone business computing. IT may not like having to support iPads and Android phones, but guess what: Users don't care. Business users in industries such as pharmaceuticals are grabbing iPads almost as fast as Beijing Apple Store shoppers.

As end users run roughshod over IT with their tablets and smartphones, Microsoft simply doesn't have a competitive offering. Yes, there are Windows 7 tablets, such as Fujitsu's Stylistic Q550, and some people, according to Forrester Research, seem to want them. I'd love to know where Forrester found these people. At a price of about a grand, the Q550 isn't exactly making buyers crowd the stores. At the same time, I can find any number of people who want an iPad 2 and cutting-edge technology fans who want Android tablets.

Meanwhile, Google is trying to rip the business desktop away from Microsoft, with its Chrome OS on Chromebooks. While I like that Chrome OS is based on Linux, that's a side issue. The real points in Chromebooks' favor are that they're cheap, they should be reliable, they require no learning curve, and, thanks to Google's Citrix and VMware partnerships, they support Windows-based enterprise applications. It helps too that people trust Google.

Are Chromebooks for everyone? No. How about ordinary day-in, day-out office work? If your days are already spent on Web- or cloud-based applications, then yes, they are.

I've heard some people argue that PCs cost less than $28 a month -- which is what Google and partners will be charging. Oh, my friends, you've never been a CIO or CFO.

According to Rajen Sheth, group product manager for Chrome for Business, a Chromebook will cost you $336 a year per user. A 2008 Gartner study, done on behalf of Citrix, showed a total cost of ownership of $2,845 a year for a PC. Even if you take out "fuzzy" numbers for training and the like, you still end up with an annual TCO of about $1,722. Advantage: Chromebooks.

Then there's Microsoft's struggle to get businesses to switch from XP to Windows 7. Even in the mass market, where consumers have long had no real choice, Windows 7 has only recently moved ahead of XP . Indeed, in the previous quarter, overall Windows 7 sales actually declined.

Put it all together, and here's what I get: First, Microsoft is a nonstarter in the explosive tablet and smartphone markets, which are encroaching on what used to be the business desktop market. Second, with the Chromebook, you finally have a real desktop challenger with a powerful backer. And third, Microsoft under Steve Ballmer is clearly not keeping up with the times and, more damaging still, hasn't been successful in getting businesses to switch to Windows 7. Taken as a whole, I see Windows beginning a long, slow decline on the business desktop.

Don't think it can happen? Well, maybe you're still an IBM and IE stalwart. But things change. Even Microsoft's iron grip on the desktop.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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