I began this series by looking at the current environment and talking about why all the vendors, including Microsoft, are having problems displacing Windows 2000/XP. I concluded that neither Linux nor Mac OS were likely to be as successful as Apple was with the iPod or Microsoft initially was with Windows.
Next I looked at a number of the players shooting to change this environment and specifically called out Google and HP as the two most likely to drive what could be a massive change. This should result in something a great deal like the appliance device that Oracle's Larry Ellison and Sun's Scott McNealy predicted back in the '90s.
But now we'll take another path. We'll take a broad look at all of the trends, we'll add EMC, Corel, Adobe, and Cisco to the mix, and talk about a future where the desktop OS probably doesn't and shouldn't matter.
Foundation for the Future
Who are the rising power players today? I would argue it is EMC for data management, Cisco for networking, Google for services, and HP for hardware solutions. Corel has recently released a product called "Lightening," which could evolve into a bridge product taking us to this appliance-like future.
Google, in particular, walked right around Microsoft as if it weren't even there and has made more inroads into Microsoft's turf with search than Linux or Apple combined and squared. Some might argue, after looking at Google, that the market has already moved -- many of the players may simply not know it yet.
We already know that only about 5 percent of PC users ever upgrade their OS in either home or business, and an even lower number change out hardware. This further supports an appliance future. But cell phones are getting smarter, and the hot device this year is the iPhone, which could end up outselling many laptop lines, including Apple's.
TVs are becoming wireless and HP has indicated it will be taking its MediaSmart technology across lines, allowing TVs to connect to the Web. Apple is doing AppleTV, Microsoft the Xbox 360, and Cisco a set-top box product that goes beyond both in terms of turning TVs into high-resolution Internet terminals. Battery concerns are forcing the FAA to rethink laptops on airplanes, which are becoming more connected -- some already have terminal-based e-mail capability. Subscription music and movie online services continue to advance, and YouTube is fast becoming more popular than network TV.
Data is growing to massive proportions and people can't seem to keep up with it at home, while faster high-speed network connections and advanced data management technologies are allowing a single copy of a file (video, music, information) to be used by many people at the same time. Applications are increasingly hosted, and desktop all-in-one products like Microsoft Office are falling off in favor of custom applications like SFA, CRM and blog authoring. Even Adobe is getting into the game with a product called Apollo, which could become a great bridge product taking us to the future.
With Apollo, even intensive applications like photo editing are moving to the Web. And gaming appears to have been on this path for some time. Both the movie and music industries want the capability to turn on and off access to their stuff based on whether people are paying for it, and software companies, while not as vocal, want the same thing. Software as a service is clearly a trend and it goes a long way to define this future.
Now let's jump ahead to 2020 (I like round numbers) and think about what is coming.
2020: The PC Is the Network, Stupid
In 2020, whether it's WiMax or high-bandwidth wireless cellular or something else, most of the developed world, and much of the Third World, will be connected much of the time. Even a large number of airplanes will have some level of connectivity available for long-distance fliers. TVs are more like monitors in terms of resolution and the vast majority are connected in some way to the Internet via a fast link.
Screens are relatively inexpensive and so are likely widely used. Active billboards, for instance, which are still unusual, now should be common in 2020 because they will likely be less expensive to maintain than traditional billboards. This suggests active point of purchase displays as well. Cell phones will all have strong data capability and will likely be at least partially subsidized by advertising.
Your stuff, both personal and work-related, will probably exist in the cloud, where it can both be better protected and accessible from the variety of devices that you will have available to you. Laptops won't be dead, but they will be different, more streaming terminals than stand-alone devices and likely fully solid state. Their OSs will come with them and, much like a cell phone today, you'll buy it for what it does and probably not care that much about what it runs locally. You will care about your software service provider, though, as it will be giving you your desktop and applications and protecting your data.
In this vision of the future, you probably get your desktop experience much like you get your cable and phone experience today (in fact, it might even be the same vendor) and you'll probably pay for it monthly. Hardware probably won't be subsidized, however, to avoid a lock-in to any one service provider. And you'll probably buy your own hardware if you are an executive but have it supplied to you if you are a lower-level employee or have special job-related needs for hardware -- much like it is for cell phones today.
You will have two service providers, one for work and one for personal, and be able to switch between the two dynamically (and probably have them both up and running at once). One side, for security reasons, will probably not talk to the other, and if you are fired, retire or quit, your access to the corporate stuff will go off like a light.
Getting Ready for the Future
If we know the future will be about employees with appliance-like PCs that largely get their stuff off of the network, how do we prepare for that future now, or even better, if it is attractive, how do we get there first?
If I'm building hardware, either for the home or business, turning the experience into something more appliance-like than it is today would be my goal. I might actually start with embedded Windows and see if I could do what Apple does with BSD UNIX, but without the compatibility problems, or look at doing a custom interface for Windows. And both would be tied to a back-end service which would handle security, software updates and automated support.
Over time, I'd be looking at getting away from purchase models and moving to service models while enabling employee hardware purchase options and ensuring IT concerns with regard to data ownership. That would increase my ability to both cycle hardware and sell higher-end hardware, while lowering the cost to IT. Enabling employees to buy the hardware they want potentially increases OEM revenue, lowers IT hardware costs and makes the employees happier.
If I'm in IT, I'm talking to my hardware providers about how I can help make this happen. I'm looking at solutions providers who can both work with my existing infrastructure (in other words, who aren't at war with Microsoft) and have a unique ability to deal with the problems a shift like this would entail. EMC, HP, and Cisco all stand out in this regard right now.
With software, I'm favoring solutions that have both local and remote access capabilities. I need transition products and companies that are building them.
Apple is too desktop right now, and Google is too network. Corel and Adobe might, however, have interesting alternatives. Leaving behind the Apple vs. Linux vs. Windows BS, disruptive change is painful, and if Microsoft can be driven to the needed changes to make this reality happen, it will be less costly for those that are tied to Microsoft technology than a major vendor shift.
Microsoft is simply too embedded in most of your shops to get out. But if doesn't move in time, you'll have no choice but to move. IBM sure learned this lesson the hard way.
The cost and competitive advantages in this new model will simply be too great and, much like it was when we moved (mostly) from the mainframe, you'll be faced with incurring a lot of costs that could have been better spent elsewhere.
Microsoft sees this coming but change is hard for it.
I'm not advocating you make a specific choice. I am suggesting you stand back and take a look at where the industry is going, put in place plans to be there, and ensure your company is where it needs to be in time.
You don't need to be first, you can't afford to be last. If there was ever a time to think strategically, now is that time.
Here is hoping you'll be around in 2020. I'm kind of looking forward to it.