The End of Windows?

Will Windows ever be supplanted as the prominent operating system on the desktop? Is there an “end” for Windows? Hypothetically, it is possible. Virtually no technology has an unassailable position. The very few exceptions are things like 110 volt 60 Hz outlets in Canada and the US (and 230V 50Hz in other places) and lightbulb sockets. Examples of dominant technologies and business models being replaced are everywhere. Outside of computing, propeller drive aircraft gave way to jets. Analog TV was replaced in the US with digital broadcast TV. Cable-driven excavators were largely replaced by hydraulic equipment. Catalog sales by mail were replaced by catalog sales by phone, which is being replaced by on-line ordering via the Internet.

In computing, mainframe computers, were supplanted, or more correctly supplemented and eclipsed, by  UNIX and Windows servers. Proprietary hardware from a limited selection of vendors has faded into the background, to be replaced by commodity hardware from multiple manufacturers. MS-DOS gave way to Windows, UNIX is slowly slipping back behind Linux, and Internet Explorer has given ground to Firefox.

So too, over time, will Windows give way to other operating systems. Windows has already started to slip in market share, losing a little bit of ground to MacOS and Linux. In almost all of these cases, though, the old technology never really disappeared, and most of them are still around today (we still have mainframes, prop-driven planes and cable-driven excavators). What happened is that they lost their position as the dominant technology in use, to have people use other forms of technology to do what they needed to do. I do expect that Windows will, over time, find itself holding less of a prominent place in the computing world over time.

However, conventional operating systems like MacOS or Linux are, in many ways, “more of the same”. They don’t represent a fundamental shift in how people approach computing. They simply present 2 other large operating systems as alternatives to Windows. And, like Firefox to Internet Explorer, they are finding some ground. But I’m not sure they are better “enough” to replace Windows, or at least take over a significant share of the desktop and end-user computing space. The potential is there for MacOS to gain further ground, potentially in the enterprise space when Outlook is available, but I’m not sure we would see it dominate the desktop the way Windows has to date. What would be different enough is to have computing and end-user information always available, at any time, for users to access and use, and it is this type of shift that I think will reduce the dominance of Windows on end-user computing.

There have been many, many attempts at having a way for people to “take their information with them”. Xerox and the Altos workstation, with its dedicated network, was a way for people in an office to sit down at any Altos terminal, log in, and get “their” desktop with their files and data. Something close to this is available with Solaris and dynamically mounted NFS filesystems that can give you your environment on any machine in your network. The original vision for the NeXT was for you to use a removable disk that contained your data and your environment, including your software. You sit down at a computer, plug in your disk, and get to work. Everything you need fits in your hand.

Docking stations and notebooks are the current iteration in that direction. You can have a large, multiscreen environment with a dedicated keyboard and mouse in your office, a smaller setup at home, and all you do is take your notebook back and forth. Compaq and Apple started this with some very early subnotebooks and dedicated docking stations. Many business laptops from Lenovo and Dell offer docking stations that provide this same type of functionality today.

These various solutions have problems. The “network as computer” in the Altos and Solaris were limited by the available technologies at the time they were conceived. Since they required specialized hardware and software, and needed large available bandwidth, it didn’t scale up outside of an office environment. The NeXT concept was closer, since the device was quite portable (although not quite pocket-sized), but was burdened with limits in the technology at the time, primarily speed, and was also limited to only working on NeXT devices. The dockable notebook, while more functional and ‘scalable’ in that it is a standalone computing device you can use anywhere, still results in (for the most part) bulky devices that you have to cart around.

Cloud computing and browser-based services like Google Docs take the “network as computer” model and scales it better, since the passage of time has resulted in standards for browsers and browser environments. Our available potential bandwidth has also increased over time. The downfall, though, is availability and questions on security of your data. Some web-based services only work when you are connected to the web, and don’t work when you happen to be offline, and for business travelers, this can be an issue. However, this type of computing means that it doesn’t matter what operating system you run. As long as you have a browser with the right capabilities, you can do your work. This is a notable shift, and could supplant Windows. However, I’m not sure it is fundamental “enough”, since accessing these services is largely done via notebooks and desktops running Windows in the first place. It isn’t getting people to think about computing in a different way, just how they use some of their software.

There are two potential game changers that could throw a spanner into the Windows machinery: netbooks and smart phones. Currently, neither is in a direct position to challenge the supremacy of the desktop/notebook for resource-intensive computing or the enterprise. Their small screens, tiny keyboards and limited computing capability today aren’t there yet. But, what they are doing is getting people to think differently about their computing needs. As more and more people move beyond just using dedicated Internet connections at home or the office, and start to move to “always on, always there” Internet access from nearly anywhere you can sit, stand or lay down, the potential for desktop computing to shift is there. Inevitable advances in technology could allow these devices to become our primary computing platform, and as a result, supplant Windows as the operating system on our “desktop”. They offer a balance of being able to use Internet-enabled services, but also act as standalone computing when the network isn’t there.

Of the two, I believe that the smart phone has the greatest potential, but it also has the steepest hill to climb. While the netbook is compelling, and for some users will make sense as their core computing device, I believe that for a lot of people a powerful smart phone, with a rich set of applications, supplemented by external monitors, keyboards, etc could change the game, and start to move Windows into the background. I believe this because of the size and portability of the devices, which makes it trivial to take the machine with you.

Imagine a world where your computer is in your pocket. All of your key files and other data are available on a device that is with you whenever you need them. Using wireless connections or a dedicated docking station for your phone, you can use normal-sized keyboards and large screens to edit documents and spreadsheets, manage e-mail, and engage in real-time conversations either via voice or text messaging. When on the go, you have this little device that can get you your e-mails, allow you to search for information, browse documents, and engage in other forms of communication. It can inform you and entertain you. You can still do some things with it, even when you have no network connection available.

Right now, Blackberries, iPhones and Android phones can provide anywhere from 70-90% of this, depending on your needs. I had occasions recently where all I had was my iPhone. I discovered that I can use an iPhone in its current form to do about 80-90% of what I need to do, leaving out programming and heavy-duty document editing tasks. As these devices get more powerful, and get more storage and better battery life, I could see them being useful for the bulk of the office tasks that I do today using dedicated desktop and notebook hardware. I don’t believe I am atypical in this case. If I could get the iPhone connected to a bigger screen (with more pixels) and a real keyboard, I could probably do almost everything I need to except for programming.

Will this work for everyone? Of course not. There are some things that are simply too resource intensive. Gaming, writing and testing software, computer design and engineering simulations come to mind right off the top. But, just like no one motor vehicle can “do it all”, I’m not naive enough to think that a souped-up smartphone will be able to do it all either. But I don’t believe that smartphone technology will simply stay put, and can see it evolving and improving over time.

How close are these devices? I believe they are maybe halfway there. The three shortfalls I see are CPU power, storage, and battery life. as always, technology marches forward, and these will be overcome. I don’t expect it to be tomorrow or even in the next year or two. But they will improve.

Ultimately, for Windows to fade away, it will take a fundamental change in how computing works. I don’t see it being replaced by another variation of a desktop OS like MacOS or Linux, simply because they aren’t better “enough” to compel a change of that magnitude. I also don’t see Windows, MacOS or Linux disappearing completely: they (or something like them) will have a place on the desktop and notebooks for a long time to come, just as large UNIX servers and mainframes still have their uses. But for a lot of what people do, an uber-smartphone, with supplemental accessories under some circumstances, could be what eventually moves Windows and similar operating systems to a secondary or tertiary role in day-to-day computing tasks.


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