Cost is the big driver for change in 2009 and 2010. Microsoft, as the dominant vendor, has this turf today but according to Laura DiDio's recent survey, it is vulnerable, with only 10 percent reporting any significant Vista deployment. What is interesting is that, of those that deployed, 78 percent indicated that it was satisfactory or better, with 27 percent rating it excellent or very good in performance, reliability and security. This would indicate a serious image rather than a product problem with the product, while the deployment numbers -- no surprise here -- indicate that perception rules deployment decisions.
This has created an interesting environment, one that is actually very similar to the late 80s/early 90s, when Microsoft took the desktop from IBM and terminals. In this case, however, it is Microsoft that is exposed, and this exposure was created by a number of things. Increasing sales of Windows XP on netbooks, the general rejection of Windows Vista in business, and a massive need to contain costs in all parts of the market have created an environment where change could happen very quickly. The viable challengers are Google, Apple and IBM. Let's look at each in turn.
IBM: Virtual Desktop Designed to "Freeze" out Microsoft
Well timed, this effort promises to shift much of the cost from the desktop to back-end, IT-managed resources, and this reduces dramatically the cost of desktop management. Based on Ubuntu Linux, the most successful desktop Linux to date, the offering also bundles Lotus Notes and a rebranded version of OpenOffice called Lotus Symphony to complete what is a very reasonable $49 per desktop software offering.
IBM claims 90 percent savings on PC support and a 75 percent savings on security and user administration, both of which are likely achievable short term. All very compelling in a time when funds are in short supply.
While IBM has accurately taken advantage of Microsoft's weakness and pointed to the cloud, which is the eventual destination, the offering has three critical weaknesses. The OS and the Productivity Suite are not fully under IBM's control and both are likely facing severe funding and staffing problems going into 2009. OpenOffice is effectively stalled due to lack of support. Second, the deployment would require a substantial hardware investment to install and faces similar single-vendor issues that have stalled thin client and blade PC efforts previously in getting approval for the capital expense and ensuring IT isn't too dependent on one vendor long term. Third, it doesn't embrace the user, and since the emergence of DOS, the user has been the primary driver for new desktop technology, not IT.
IBM is helping set the trend, but may not benefit from it unless it can address the offering's shortcomings.
Apple: Enterprise Ready?
According to the DiDio survey, 68 percent of the companies polled said they were allowing users to deploy Macs in their shops. This is a trend I brought up back in November and speaks to the power of the line manager with regard to desktop deployments in today's enterprise. Over the last two decades, line managers have increasingly been given responsibility for the cost and selection of the technology they use. Where it is server-based and shared, IT still gets much of the final vote, but when it exists in the organization itself like printers, PCs, monitors and peripherals, IT's wishes can be easily overridden because IT doesn't own the budget -- the line manager does.
Apple PCs are generally supported in enterprises by a peer-to-peer support structure, effectively eliminating the PC support costs, which can account for about 50 percent of the overall cost of the device. As a result, the user and the line manager see this as a win/win. The user gets an attractive device to use that they believe to be more reliable than either an aging Windows XP-based professional platform or a perceived unreliable Vista product, and the line manager can deploy about twice the number of new PCs for the same cost. Migration pain is contained with the user and the internal Mac user community. While productivity may initially suffer, eventually the group stabilizes on the new platform. However, desktop compatibility problems spike and this Mac move is generally supported by a move to the cloud so that they can be accessed from the browser. This move to allow Macs into the enterprise may prove to be the biggest driver towards completing what has been a long-term effort to host desktop applications.
Apple's long-term problem is that it is premium priced, hardware bound (both in line depth and breadth), and not really set up to have large companies as clients. These should prevent Apple from growing fast enough to take the market from Microsoft. But it will accelerate the move to the cloud significantly.
Google: The Wild Card
Google's desktop platform, believed to be based on Linux and using the Android model, is rumored to be in internal test in the company. Google seems to get that the best chance to eclipse Microsoft is a blend of Apple and Microsoft strategies. On the Apple side, it is containing complexity and assuring product quality. On the Microsoft side, it is to work through OEM partners to gain economies of scale very quickly. Google is a cloud-based company and much of the value it will provide will come from the back end. This should allow it to argue similar savings to the IBM program with benefits to the user that could rival Apple. Because it can scale, it represents the strongest threat to Microsoft. However, its greatest impact may be as an accelerator to the cloud as that end of its offering will need to advance very quickly. Currently, Google Apps hasn't turned out to be much of a threat to Microsoft Office and that would need to change markedly.
Google's strategy appears strong, but here execution may be the problem. You can't sell what you don't have in the market and this product hasn't entered it yet. Google's compensation model is still largely supported by underwater options, making it incredibly hard to keep employees focused on the job and not their tanking net worth, a problem that had Microsoft switch from options to stock grants a few years ago. Still, its efforts will drive more and more development into the cloud because it too signifies a future where much of what is custom is hosted there.
Microsoft is rushing Windows 7 to market and early reviews have been good. However, the move to the cloud is what creates the foundation for much of the savings the competing platforms will report and this move will benefit PC alternatives like netbooks and smartphones as well. So, regardless of what happens on the PC, 2009 will be the year of the cloud for the desktop and we'll probably never look back. In a few years, we may no longer care that much what runs on our devices but only care about the services to which they connect.