Future of the Desktop Market

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?

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12 Responses to Future of the Desktop Market

  1. Rob UNITED STATES Google Chrome Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    2013: Year of the Linux Desktop!

    Yeah right.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Rob:

    I guess my point is that Linux may never be ready for the “desktop” but it may leap around it, and find itself at the center of the post-desktop era. It is part of the Adroid, it may become an OS underlying some future gaming platforms, etc..

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  3. astine Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Well, 12.04 *is* Canonical’s bet for the future…

    Seriously though, I don’t think that the desktop will ever go away altogether. Tablets are nice for web browsing, but you really need a keyboard for long text entry. Also tablets don’t provide very large screens. If tablets are to entirely replace laptops and desktops, they will need to be trivially converted to laptop and desktop form factor: at the very least by providing a bluetooth keyboard, more likely by providing whole (bluetooth?) docking stations. Once you start using them like that, people are going to want desktop operating systems anyway. (Actually, that’s why the hybrid, tablet-desktop approach might be the right one in the long run.)

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ astine:

    Exactly. I think we are on a convergence course. Mobile OS’s need to ramp up in functionality, and desktop OS’s need to accommodate for extra mobility and alternate control schemes.

    In the short term (next decade) the desktop (or rather the laptop) will be still be around. People will need it for work, and so it will remain a core tool for white collar workers. The devices will just get thinner and more portable as we go.

    Beyond that I think we might see glasses and contacts push out traditional displays (at least that’s where we seem to be going right now) at which point the “screen size” is no longer a concern because the new devices will be able to take advantage from your entire field of vision.

    Eventually a “computer” might be a tiny key fob that you wear on your key chain or around your neck, which interfaces with your glasses which read your eye movements and with your wristband for hand motion tracking. Hell, eventually they might figure out how to bake it into the frames of your glasses so you don’t have to carry an additional thing. If you are a business guy, you might carry a foldable bluetooth keyboard in your bag for better typing.

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  5. Mrjones2015 GERMANY Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    Ive been using the win8 cp since it came out now and i seriously think you are overestimating the impact of metro on the overall usability. All these big changes mentioned will not affect ones daily productive work.

    For most people there will be only a very few new things comming.
    Remember, the more things change, the more they stay the same ;)

    Heres a list of things i see actually differ from Win7
    -Start button is now hidden in the corner
    -programs are now aligned horizontally in big tiles
    -shutdown is located in a weird place, bofh having a good day will add a tile in the startmenu

    most used programs will be run and maximized/minimized using the taskbar (or opened by doubleclicking desktopicons) as usual

    You didnt show any real examples, what do you think will trigger the usability catastrophy?

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  6. Mrjones2015 GERMANY Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    Btw im using netscape navigator on the ipad :D

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Mrjones2015:

    Honestly, I hope you are right. If users find it intuitive enough, then I will be happy.

    From what I read the major usability issues for the desktop are that the controls are intuitive for touch users, but not for mouse users. There are button type things hidden in the corners, scrolling is not intuitive. etc. Metro hides away the task bar and forces some apps to run in full screen whether the user wants it or not. I suspect users daily routines will have to include many additional clicks to excorcise away the insistent metro overlays and cause much confusion, generate a lot of support calls and require much user training.

    I mean, look at what has happened with Office 2007. The change from menus to ribbon was not that drastic, but we are still dealing with an aftermath. We still get weekly request to install “the good office” on workstations because people don’t want to deal with 2007 and 2010.

    But, maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong.

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  8. Mrjones2015 GERMANY Safari Mac OS says:

    Yes, metro apps and their settings are a nightmare for mouse keyboard input, but they are so bad at this time, nobody would even think about using them. Secondly, what the windows store currently has to offer is quickly produced copies of famous appstore apps (accuweather, cut the rope, a tv guide, a cooking book and a nyt reading app). There is not one app that i would mark as even slightly useful”

    If your are interested in making some more windows8 related blogentries i would share with great amusement screenshots and some of my own critical points with you.

    Happy first of may! (its a holiday in germany)

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  9. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Opera Linux Terminalist says:

    I’m yet waiting to see how it all plays out. Tablets are still too expensive for my taste, especially since they are just suckier internet browsing machines, perhaps I will think about buying one when Google releases their cheapo version. Even if I do some things are just easier to do with a proper setup in your room or office, in that case portability isn’t a very important feature. Tablets can fill the niche of computing on the go, but there will always be demand for computing at home, as long as the devices sync with ease I can see desktops surviving.

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  10. ths GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    >Valve’s interest in Linux is related to their efforts to launch their own gaming platform<

    sounds a bit like we're back to booting into games or have dedicated gaming consoles?

    Reply  |  Quote
  11. s1n UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    Tablets are consumer devices. Those of us who are producers will probably stick with desktop PCs. Every so often, clever pundits proclaim the end of the . It started with the Palm Pilot, then the Blackberry, then the smart phone, then the netbook, and now the tablet. I’ve heard these ridiculous claims before and they’ve yet to pan out in the last 20 years.

    Tablets seem like fine replacements for laptops, but not useful for any heavy lifting (think what 8 hours a day typing on an on-screen keyboard will do to your sanity). Being able to replace my power supply, memory, processor, etc far exceeds the value of having a walled garden tablet.

    Don’t waste your time proclaiming the end of anything, you’ll just end up being wrong. After all, how many people proclaimed the end of the mainframe (think “cloud”)?

    Reply  |  Quote
  12. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ s1n:

    Yes, producers will still need regular machines for the time being. Same goes for business users. I said that in my post. You can’t easily produce content on tablets. But, eventually we might get better input methods for ultra-portable devices things will change.

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