The Hollow OS
Standing here with my toes hanging over the edge of a new year, I've started to ponder what 2007 will hold for computing and networking. From my foggy viewpoint it appears that much of the industry should progress in a predictable manner, adding increments of processing power, storage and multimedia capabilities to the venerable PC architecture -- all bundled together under the rigid strictures of Microsoft's new Vista OS. On the other hand, a slightly different reading of the tea leaves hints at the early signs of what may be deep faults in the strategy that has allowed the folks in Redmond to hold sway over our digital lives for the past couple of decades.
If it happens, I don't think it will be because Windows falls victim to a digital coup that enables Linux or any other OS to displace Microsoft from the desktop. What may happen, however, is that a number of technical trends are slowly moving the traditional PC further from the center of our digital lives. In his recent editorial The Vista Of RSS, my colleague Paul McGoldrick rightly pointed out that people are getting fed up with the growing bulk, vulnerability, and inflexibility of each passing generation of Windows, and there's a growing movement to free our data and multimedia files from its grasp.
Actually, the movement has a hardware and a software component. On the hardware side, we're seeing specialized PC-independent devices that use open interface and data format standards to move, store and play multimedia without ever having to go near Windows or any other Big OS. One early example of this trend is the many printers which can produce photos directly from cameras, or memory sticks, without any help from a PC. Meanwhile the web browsing and e-mail capabilities of today's wireless smart phones may be the more successful reincarnation of the tablet-based information appliances that failed to be PC-killers in the late 1990s.
The explosion of inexpensive, high-density storage is also helping wrest data from the clutches of the PC. With one or more gigabytes of storage available in nearly any multimedia player -- or thumb drive -- music, video, and even ordinary data files are no longer captive to the desktop. In fact, I'll have to grudgingly agree with Paul that products like Agere's recently-introduced BluOnyx Mobile Content Server (reviewed here in connectivityZONE) that allow handheld devices to store and exchange files over wireless links may play a big role in undermining Big Operating Systems dominance.
Windows Vista also faces challenges from the software side as more and more applications migrate from the PC to the web. Whether it's web-based e-mail, photo sharing services, or shared hosting of an integrated office suite, people are discovering the joys of liberating their data from their local PCs. Given these trends, it's not hard to imagine that, in the near future, many of us will be using low-cost thin clients or low-cost web terminals to access the storage space and the applications we've rented on a remote server instead of going through the bother and expense of buying a PC.
While I'd really consider selling my Microsoft stock, I don't think this means that the PC is doomed. There will always be a huge demand for the enormous amounts of general-purpose computing power they deliver for local servers, graphics or video processing, and a myriad of other specialized applications. And, of course, there are the gamers, enthusiasts, and many other segments of the population who prefer to have the control over their technology that a local computer affords. It will be up to Microsoft as to whether it can reform its product architecture and market philosophy to meet the needs of its new clientele or whether they end up chasing a market which no longer exists.
Comments? Questions? Care to share your own prognostications on the future of the PC? Write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org