Has the concept of the Windows-based business desktop become irrelevant due to the uptake of low-cost internet-connected devices and mobile apps? Cliff Saran investigates.
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Windows is 25 years old this month. By all counts it is a legacy of 1980s computing. When the PC replaced centralised computing systems, the software industry replicated mainframe functionality under the guise of client server computing. Thanks to the pace of development in microprocessor technology, the PC is a complex, powerful and highly sophisticated general purpose computing device. The IT industry has sold businesses the idea they must upgrade PCs continually to stay on the technology curve, or risk falling behind competitors.
Yet businesses are reluctant to upgrade. Windows XP powers approximately 75% of all commercial PCs, according to a study from Forrester Research. Windows XP, an 11 year-old operating system, continues to impressively maintain its grasp of the commercial PC market over that of its successor, Windows Vista, the analyst said.
While Forrester predicts users will naturally migrate to Windows 7, some experts argue that this will be their last-ever Windows upgrade. Today's business desktop PC, in the main, has more power than most users actually need, unless they run massive computations or graphics- or video-editing packages. Further, the advent of cloud computing means processing can easily be offloaded onto server farms on the internet, which means even these processor-intensive applications no longer need be run on the desktop. A powerful desktop OS is overkill for the internet age.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is refreshing its desktop systems with the latest versions of Windows and Office, but James Gardner, chief technology officer at DWP, questions what Microsoft will do to restore the value of Windows.
"I think it likely this is the last version of Windows anyone ever widely deploys," he says in a blog post.
"From a strategic point of view, if you're designing the future technology estate of a large organisation, the last thing it makes sense to do in this kind of context is build stuff that depends on a desktop stack. Furthermore, decoupling legacy from the desktop stack also has to be on the agenda, because you just can't count on that stack being relevant in 10 years' time."
This is beginning to happen. Ocado, the online grocer, has recently replaced Microsoft technologies with Google Apps, which offer basic word processing and e-mail via a cloud service. Jon Rudoe, Head of Retail at Ocado says: "At Ocado, we aren't afraid to challenge conventions and do things differently."
Doing things differently is something Microsoft has yet to grasp, while competitors like Google and Apple forge ahead. Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief scientist, who recently announced his retirement, sent a letter to Microsoft executives last month, in which he outlines the end of the PC. In the so-called "dawn of a new day" address, Ozzie says: "For the majority of users, the PC is largely indistinguishable even from the 'browser' or 'internet'. As such, it's difficult for many of us to even imagine that this could ever change. But as the PC client and PC-based server have grown from their simple roots over the past 25 years, the PC-centric/server-centric model has accreted simply immense complexity."
Building complexity into products does not guarantee a sustainable business model. In the letter, Ozzie recognises the limits complexity puts on the software industry. "So long as customer or competitive requirements drive teams to build layers of new function on top of a complex core, ultimately a limit will be reached. Fragility can grow to constrain agility. Some deep architectural strengths can become irrelevant - or worse, can become hindrances."
In fact, one user, commenting on Gardner's blog, said: "The complexity of the desktop OS now is too great, most users probably only use 10% of it."
Some organisations are deploying thin clients to replace complex desktop PCs.
North Tyneside Council has replaced 4,000 desktop PCs with thin client computers from Wyse, which connect to a Citrix server farm. This architecture provides users with access to Windows applications. Mick Preston, who led the project at the council. said: "Streamlining the infrastructure is giving staff access to all the data and applications they need. It's also freeing up the council's ICT resources to focus on other priorities without the distraction of fixing PCs on site."
This certainly reduces desktop complexity, but it pushes the complexity into the datacentre. Users access the same applications and desktop stack as they would from a PC. As such, thin clients do not strictly represent Ozzie's post-PC era or answer the underlying problems of a complex desktop stack that Gardner describes.
So it is unlikely Windows will live on in its present form. Given the pace of change on Google Android and Apple iOS in the smartphone market, users have far more flexible IT at their disposal, compared to the restricted and overtly complex corporate desktop. As Bill Jensen and Josh Klein note in their new book, Hack Work: breaking stupid rules for smart results, increasingly users are turning their backs on corporate IT, because desktop IT is a barrier to their productivity. To support such users, IT needs to rethink the desktop strategy and Microsoft and the PC industry must re-invent the desktop component of business computing.