The Desktop OS Will Never Die – Just Multiply

Philip Berne - Jun 11, 2010
The Desktop OS Will Never Die – Just Multiply

More and more people are traveling without a laptop these days, who otherwise might have been laden with a heavy machine. Some of them are realizing that their email, Web browsing and even basic document needs are better met by a smartphone. Some have even taken the plunge to buy a tablet like an iPad, and find that it does the trick just fine. In fact, with its light weight, great casual gaming and top-notch multimedia capabilities, the iPad or a similar tablet might be a better choice than a laptop for many travelers.

I recently traveled without my notebook for the first time in ages. My grandmother passed away, so I was taking the weekend off of work to be with my family. I brought my smartphone only. What else would I need? My parents have an iMac, should any serious typing be required, but without work commitments, what could come up?

Besides the sad purpose of the trip, traveling unencumbered was pleasant, but not liberating. I never felt imprisoned by my laptop, quite the opposite. The laptop makes me feel capable, prepared.

When I travel for business, I do not travel light. I overpack on clothes on purpose, just to be prepared. I bring a laptop, a digital SLR with a couple lenses and a flash, an HD camcorder and a few smartphones. One for me, one for backup, and I’m usually testing one or two for an upcoming review. Do I need all this equipment? Definitely. I need to edit large RAW files in Photoshop. I need to edit video footage. I couldn’t do any of this without my equipment.

I think that the laptop market will be significantly impacted by tablets, but I wouldn’t sound the death knell for the desktop-class operating system just yet. Many pundits are doing just that. Joel Johnson on Gizmodo breathlessly announced that he was selling his laptop because the iPad is so great. Yeah, right, let’s ask him again in a few months how that worked out.

Some are misinterpreting Steve Jobs’ statement at the D8 conference this year. You can see his comments at the AllThingsD site, but significantly, he said that PC’s are like trucks. It used to be that all cars were as capable as trucks, but now most people need small cars, and only one out of X people needs a truck.

I agree completely. A PC should be for work. But let’s also remember that the top selling vehicle in the U.S., according to Edmunds, is actually the Ford F-150, a pickup truck. Then, depending on who you ask, comes the Honda Accord. In the #3 spot, the Chevy Silverado 1500, another pickup.

That’s a lot of pickups. Clearly there are plenty of people out there who need trucks, for work and for convenience. Could some of them get by with a car? Certainly, but many of them need a truck.

Some folks point to the lack of Mac OS X news at the WWDC and say that Apple is completely focused on iOS4 instead. No Mac Pro means Apple hates desktops. This is ludicrous. There is more to talk about in the mobile space, mostly because it’s so new and there’s fertile ground to sow. But remember, every iPad sold, every iPhone needs a PC before you can use it. Think Apple isn’t smart enough to make an iPad that you can activate without iTunes? Of course they could. But the company’s vision is still anchored in the PC.

Apple is in no way a bellwether for the industry. In design, Apple leads the pack, but almost every other manufacturer trots out the newest features first. Apple is more famous for the features they leave out than what they throw in. Every other major manufacturer tackles product categories before Apple will even bother. Apple didn’t make the first notebook, the first all-in-one PC, the first digital music player, the first smartphone or the first tablet.

Why did Apple ignore Mac OS X at WWDC? Because Apple dominates the market for computers that cost well over $1,000. Sure, those are still selling well, relative to how they were selling last year. But overall, in this economy, with such a bleak outlook for the next few years, most people who need to buy a new machine are buying cheap netbooks and notebooks in the $500 range. In the Windows and Linux world that will get you a fine computer. In the Apple world, that will get you a low-end iPad, if you live in Delaware and don’t pay sales tax. That’s why Apple is talking iOS4 instead of Mac OS X.

The desktop OS isn’t dead; it’s better than ever. Windows 7 is arguably Microsoft’s best OS to date, and it’s already selling much better than the blight that was Vista. But the purpose of these computers will change, especially for people who use them in the home.

The next great desktop product will be the media center. I know there are already good options out there, but they aren’t easy and reliable enough for the average consumer. Google is trying to tackle this market with an ambitious, though flawed product in Google TV.

I think Google is missing the point. People don’t want to watch the Internet on their HDTV. Hulu is not original programming, it’s the stuff you missed on TV. Most of the best content Google TV offers is really rehashed television programming. Google TV is going to confuse the heck out of the average consumer. As long as the TV networks have the most money to spend on content, they are going to have the best content, and the audience knows this, which is why a great YouTube video might get a few million views in its lifetime, but tens of millions of people tune into the most popular shows on television every week.

There’s an opportunity in this market, and desktops can fill it. People don’t want another set top box. Set top boxes have proven completely unpopular among the masses. TiVo, Roku, these are great products that offer revolutionary features, but most people just want the simplicity of their single cable box. Start stacking boxes and most consumers tune out right away.

This is where the desktop comes in. To fill this gap, you need a great home network server. You need a flexible, adaptable interface design. You need a superior network connection to constantly download data and more programming. You need massive amounts of storage to house video, audio, photos and more. This is where desktops excel.

Your entire house is going to be connected to the Internet very soon. I’ve seen network connected refrigerators. Don’t laugh, it’s an awesome concept once you see how useful it can be. Your fridge can figure out what’s inside, download recipes to match the ingredients on hand, send you a message to pick up milk or order refills itself from the store.

Your lights and your door locks will be connected to the network. Schlage, the lock maker, already has a connected lock system with its own iPhone app. These ideas have been around for a long time, but they’re just now hitting the mainstream at prices that consumers can afford.

Everything around you is going to get a lot smarter, and it’s all going to need a brain. Cloud computing is nice for smartphones. You never need a computer for a Droid or a Palm Pre, they work in the cloud. But Apple has it right with its connectivity requirement. There are some things that require more computing power, a larger screen and better input controls. Ever tried managing your music files on an Android or WebOS smartphone? It’s nearly impossible, you need a desktop. Now imagine when your air conditioner, your baby stroller and your DVR are all connected to the network.

Sure, you could bypass the desktop for these, but if computer makers are smart, they will tie into this connectivity early and provide the best interface to control your digital life. The desktop OS will never die, but you might not need to sit at a desk to reap the benefits.

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