OS Options

As computing evolves, will the desktop OS become obsolete?

by / June 7, 2001
Microsofts Windows operating system is practically synonymous with the term "personal computer." Last year, according to International Data Corp. (IDC), Microsoft owned 92 percent of the desktop OS market. Although industry analysts and technical types agree that this situation could change, they dont necessarily agree on how.

Some note that at least a modicum of competition now exists at the desktop OS level. Others wonder if the desktop OS might not disappear entirely, or -- depending on the underlying code -- be folded into UNIX software running back-end servers.

Rapidly Maturing Alternatives

At the December 2000 eBusiness Conference and Expo, Louis Gerstner, IBM CEO, said the company planned to pour $1 billion into Linux-related development in 2001. The company has roughly 1,500 developers working on Linux and is putting Linux on laptops, PCs and mainframes.

The companys public pledge to the cult-hero OS most likely wont speed Linuxs slow creep into the desktop OS market, but when a blue-chip corporation like IBM embraces Linux, people notice.

"If you ask the question, Is it possible for another OS to become a high-volume alternative to Windows? the answer is, Yes," said Daniel Frye, director of IBMs Linux Technology Center. "Is it likely? Not in the next couple of years. Linux clearly is not there yet, although its rapidly maturing."

Part of that maturation is the increasing quality of user interfaces that take some of the mystery out of using the OS and the growth in the number of available applications, he added, noting that only certain types of enterprises are likely to embrace the OS today.

"The corporations with highly technical staffs, largely engineering staffs, are at least considering Linux because they have the staff thats technical enough to be comfortable with it," he said. "What you might see on the government side is national labs, the Department of Defense or the Department of Energy start doing some trial work. They would mimic the highly technical corporate customers."

IDCs research found that Macintosh holds a 4 percent share of the desktop OS market, Linux holds slightly less than two percent of the market and all others combined hold approximately two percent, said Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of IDCs Systems Software division.

Although Linux has a very small percent of the desktop OS market, its still one of the fastest growing desktop operating systems, he added.

"Its quite possible that Linux will grow to the number two position behind Windows by 2004, based upon Mac OS current trajectory and Linuxs current growth," he said.

Microsoft is certainly aware of its competition, but the company is confident of its position.

"Linux on the desktop is certainly competition," said Tom Laemmel, Windows product manager for Microsoft. "Theres lots of competition and lots of potential competition out there."

Power of Perception

Perhaps the largest barrier to any open-source OS establishing itself in the desktop market is what people think about such software.

One image problem with a non-proprietary OS is how that OS would be certified, said IBMs Frye, noting that the C2 certification or the B1 certification are certifications not only of the code, but also of the development process. Although the process of developing a non-proprietary OS may be rigorous, Frye said hes not sure how the certification process would be applied.

Another image problem is that consumers remain leery of non-proprietary operating systems simply because they arent made by known companies.

"In some cases, theres a lack of understanding of how disciplined the open-source development process really is," said Frye. "Some people believe its chaotic and random, and its not. Its very disciplined. The peer-review process is a fairly excruciating process."

"The mindset is that this is toy software because its constructed by a community, not by a big vendor," IDCs Kusnetzky explained. "When you look at how it was constructed and who did the work -- if you go down and read the list of names on the modules themselves -- it reads like the whos who of computing. There are people out there contributing to this software who work for Oracle, Sybase, Informix, IBM and Hewlett-Packard."

Desktop OS Goes Extinct?

Kusnetzky sees a pattern emerging that could spell the end of the desktop OS. He noted that vendors such as Sun and Oracle are pitching a strategy that would forego the typical arrangement of PCs as clients of some heavy-duty server.

"Were seeing a lot of people rush to Web-focused, server-centric computing models," he said. "They want to move to server-centric computing where the client can be anything. The question is, Will they get there?"

The browser model does hold promise, said Rick Webb, managing director of state and local practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers and former CIO of North Carolina.

"I think youre going to see more of a browser approach as we go forward," he said. "The Web is going to deliver a lot of the services that were now getting off the desktop."

Although government workers clearly need access to office-suite applications and e-mail to do their jobs, its not as certain that those programs need to reside on individual desktops throughout an enterprise, he added.

Microsofts .NET, with its focus on distributed computing, is at least a nod in that direction, but the company firmly believes that the desktop OS wont lose importance in the coming years.

"For the foreseeable future, the desktop PC really will be the hub of all the things that people want to do, from the corporate perspective and the home user perspective," said Microsofts Laemmel.

Despite the lure of a browser-based approach, Laemmel believes that most people appreciate the functionality a fully equipped laptop or desktop PC gives them and would be leery of making a total switch to a browser-based computing model.

"Its been two or three years since thin clients have been hailed as the next generation of things," he said. "But what happens is that people realize that its not all that easy, and certain things wont run. Having a processor there -- having a hard disk and having the RAM there to work it all out is important to people, especially to knowledge workers."

There is perhaps another path to server-centric computing, said Mark Silverberg, manager of Compaqs global Unix Marketing and Technical Expertise Center, speculating on the future relationship of the desktop OS and back-end servers.

"As Linux now becomes an interesting play on the desktop, its fair to say that Linux on the desktop connects and attaches to and interoperates with Unix back-end servers a lot easier and a lot cheaper," he continued. "Theres a lot of commonality between the Linuxes and the Unixes because of the common heritage. The question is, over time, will the cost and complexity of managing large numbers of desktops become a factor as enterprises decide, Do I want a desktop that has very tight interoperability and low-cost and simple integration with these back-end Unix servers? Or will I spend the additional money to have a non-Unix-like desktop product?"

If Linux does continue to grab market share in the desktop OS arena, there is a real possibility that the OS will simply be absorbed into proprietary Unix code that runs the back-end servers, he said.

Convergence Blurs the Lines

While technological advances might spell the end of the desktop OS, the concept of the desktop itself could disappear as convergence becomes a reality.

"We carry this tremendous legacy environment everywhere we go," said Roy Cales, Floridas CIO. "We have to drag it along behind us." Cales noted that it will take time to replace or adapt the legacy systems to permit browser-based access to the data. "Once it happens, I think youre going to see a whole different world."

"Wireless is also going to change everything," he continued. "Weve got backlogged, right now, a request for 40,000 wireless devices as soon as the state decides that this is the route we want to go. As you move to that, then the desktop becomes less and less important. You get a much more mobile workforce."

Cales believes this evolution will blur the lines between the devices that people use.

"What we define as the desktop is going to change," he said.