I mentioned this before: desktop computers are quickly becoming an endangered species seen only on corporate campuses. Laptops, which are still the mainstay of the industry are slowly losing ground to ultra-portable tablet devices. Everyone seems to agree that future is mobile computing. We are boldly moving into a new era where consumer facing devices are portable, wearable and touch controlled – and era that some started to call “post-PC”.
Most of the big technology companies and movements see which way the wind blows and it is interesting to see how they are working to adapt to this new environment.
Apple, formerly always at the forefront of the revolutionary, paradigm breaking design (though now headless without Jobs at the helm) seems to have taken a measured approach. Their strategy is astonishingly simple and solid – they are going for slow, iterative convergence of all their product lines.
Basically, the folks working on the Apple laptops are basically making them thinner, more portable and more touch friendly. People working on tablets and phones are making them more powerful and more suited to real work (the new high-resolution displays on the new iPad are a step in that direction). The OSX is borrowing features from iOS and vice versa, but neither one is poised to lose stability, functionality or features because of this. The aim is to nudge all these products towards a shared set of common UI paradigms, but without making OSX into a tablet OS.
This is a conservative approach, but also an elegant and safe one. In a different climate you could perhaps fault apple for playing it too safe, but consider their competition.
Microsoft, in their typical manner went overboard. Most critics agree that Windows 8, in it’s current preview release state is a complete train wreck. In an attempt to build a competitive tablet OS Microsoft has completely broken the desktop. Most of the folks in the IT field I have spoken with say they won’t be rolling out this version. People are already joking about skipping Windows 8 completely, and waiting till Windows 9 comes around without the Metro nonsense baked into the core UI.
Regardless of what the Metro touch interface may do for home users, it is basically a nightmare for corporate clients. For decades now, Windows was essentially just a framework that allowed business customers to run Microsoft Office. Office is the life blood of the corporate world. I don’t know if you have ever tried getting in between an accountant and his Excel spreadsheet – my advice is: don’t.
Unfortunately, Microsoft Office can’t run in the new Metro interface. Upon launching Excel, users are unceremoniously dumped into the classic desktop mode. To launch new apps, or do other basic system maintenance tasks they must go back into Metro UI forcing them to make needless, uncomfortable, productivity killing and confusing context switches every couple of minutes. Not to mention that the Metro control paradigm that Windows 8 uses for everything (file browsing, app launching, configuration, web browsing) was never designed to be used with a mouse and keyboard.
You can probably see why IT departments view this as a huge usability problem. They are not the only ones either. A second huge demographics of traditional Windows users – PC gamers, are also concerned about the future of their preferred OS, and for the very same reason. Windows 8 UI was designed to directly compete with iOS in the tablet market, but ends up treating it’s core audiences as an afterthought.
Microsoft is shooting themselves in the foot by alienating their most loyal user base and industry insiders begin to feel this. Gabe Newell of Valve for example seems to be very critical of Windows 8, and his company is currently working to port Steam (their content delivery system) and Left 4 Dead 2 (one of their very popular games) to Linux, just like they ported them to Mac before.
Valve is quite unique in their interest of alternate PC gaming platforms and the rest of the gaming industry seems to be firmly entrenched in the Windows camp. Still, it is quite interesting to see this development – a major company very seriously embracing an underdog OS is big news on the OS market.
There is some speculation that Valve’s interest in Linux is related to their efforts to launch their own gaming platform. This makes a lot of sense – Valve is an incredibly successful at releasing and delivering PC games, but as I mentioned earlier we are in the waning years of the PC. So building a post-PC gaming platform makes sense – and using Linux as the core OS for said platform seems reasonable. If Valve could release a post-PC gaming platform that could run on open, extensible commodity hardware, use a free OS (with proprietary extensions) it could position itself quite well in the gaming market which right now is populated mostly by closed, stagnant gaming consoles and under-powered tablets that don’t support dedicated gaming controllers.
To me, the future of the desktop market looks very interesting. Microsoft is on the downward spiral. It has made a lot of bad choices in the recent years, and while Windows 8 is not going to sink them, it will probably give Apple a big boost in the desktop market. If I was Apple I would aggressively market OSX to all the users that will undoubtedly get burned by Windows 8 – and use the ability to run Microsoft Office without pain in the ass Metro context switching as a selling point.
Linux is poised to gain ground as well. And no, I don’t have illusions about it taking over the desktop market. But the amount of interest given to it by companies like Valve will certainly help. The great thing about Linux is that it does not need to pick a strategy. Linux will do what it has always done – grown and evolve in all directions at once. It will be all the things that people need it to be – desktop alternative, possibly a new gaming platform, and as always a rock solid sever OS.
What do you think? What are your predictions about the laptop/desktop market in the next few years?