Friday, October 30, 2009

Your desktop will get a facelift. Who is holding the scalpel?

There are discussions everywhere you look on whether desktop applications, such as the Microsoft Office productivity suite, have any value in a future of cheaper PCs and netbooks, software as a service (SaaS), and a need to cut energy consumption (aka less powerful desktop computers). One example of this discussion is a recent ebizQ forum, talking about exactly this. Windows 7 has also refocused people on the fact that the desktop is important. But the operating system wars are unlikely to be where the next big facelift for the desktop comes from.

In this discussion, much attention has been placed on the new platforms that provide a rich internet application experience (like Adobe Air and Microsoft Silverlight), software that is installed on your computer that supports the building of pretty application UIs that work well with centralized Internet based services. An evolution of the pretty Flash advertising that is everywhere, into something that might offer the end user some actual value.

What does this mean? It means that software developers have identified the traditional desktop operating systems of Windows, OSX and Linux (Gnome, et al.) to be insufficient for building visually attractive applications quickly and reliably that rely heavily on central web servers for information. Users have noticed that old traditional applications don't work in an Web environment either (have you ever tried to use Outlook on VPN for any period of time). And web browsers are tied to their standards for displaying traditional document type pages that they are too limited for stunning user experiences to be built.

The new platforms provide a polished look and feel, some decent software development tools (essential for adoption by the guys that make the software to choose one platform over another) and a way to almost make the OS that the application is running on irrelevant. For Adobe, for example, by getting a huge adoption of their Air/Flex platform across all different OS types, more and more applications get built on their platform. Much like Acrobat for reading PDF documents, once you have a majority level of adoption, you can assume that computer users can use your applications. Suddenly Adobe takes control of the desktop and its experience, not in a malicious spyware attack way, but in a subtle, corporate, 'we are more important than the OS vendors' kinda way.

Control of the platform gives Adobe three advantages: the ability to drive the direction of future applications through the platform functionality they provide; a justifiable way of charging a bunch of money for better developer tools; earlier access to the platform than anyone else so that their applications look better and work better than anyone else. The latter two are the items that will make Adobe the money.

I've spoken about Adobe as if they are already the winner in this. Its not true of course. There are too many vested interests for it to be that easy. But unlike the early days of the PC, where users were tied to the OS, cos that's what came in the box, today tech-savvy consumers demand openness and choice. This is why Microsoft may struggle with Silverlight - the platform ain't half bad, but it carries a stigma and assumption that it will only work well on a Windows OS (despite offering Max OSX and Linux versions). Linux and/or Java based offerings may end up being technically superior, but will be late to the game, and almost certainly lack the visual shine that comes from teams of paid designers working alongside the tech guys. I've talked about Adobe already. But I missed one -- Google.

A quick inroads with the Chrome browser and Google Desktop has brought many people a Google mindset to the desktop. Chrome is a way of perpetuating the current web application approach with some speed and simplicity, while Google gets their heads around whether Google desktop and it's gadget/plugin approach can grow into something bigger.

This is not a new fight, and is likely to continue for ages yet. Your PC, Mac or Linux desktop is going to get a facelift, we just don't know who is holding the scalpel.

A post from the Improving It blog

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