TECH TALK: Rethinking the Desktop: Game Over?

Amongst all the technology innovation of the past decade, the one area that has been relatively untouched is the screen which we see everyday when we start our computers the desktop. The collection of files, directories, folders and icons has changed little in the past decade. Yes, we have gone through multiple versions of Windows (from 3.1 to 95 to 98 to 2000 to XP). But the basic underlying concepts have remained the same. Desktop innovation has been noticeable by its absence.

I can think of two reasons for this. Firstly, much of the focus for innovation has been on the Web, though the Web browser seems to be also now frozen in time. The only interesting idea that I have across has been Mozillas tabbed browsing, which allows one to open up new windows as tabs making clicking across windows a wee bit easier. Secondly, Microsoft has won the desktop game, and so there seems to be little interest by other companies to see what can be done. Distributing a new product will probably be well nigh impossible since the Windows desktop operating system comes pre-installed on most computers.

If we look at the two desktop OS alternatives, Apple has of late been trying to come up with innovative ideas for its Mac platform with its OS X, while Linux has had two desktops in the form of KDE and Gnome. While OS X has genuinely tried to make things easier for users, its limited platform availability makes it a non-started. The Linux desktops have simply tried to copy the look-and-feel of Microsofts Windows. The underlying feeling behind all this is that the desktop game is over.

The desktop game is over only as far as the current set of computer users go. For todays 500 million users, the Microsoft Windows-powered desktop has become more of a gateway to connect to the Internet. The email client (Outlook or Outlook Express) and web browser (Internet Explorer) have effectively become the applications there they spend much of their time, complemented by MS-Office in the workplace and Instant Messaging in homes. And as history has shown, it is very difficult to change entrenched habits.

But the desktop game is not yet begun if we consider the next 500 million users. This is an audience that has only limited access to computers, if at all. They are in the emerging markets of the world, waiting for a dramatic reduction in the price of computing to adopt the technology. They have no love for one OS over the other; they have no baggage of the past.

So, can we take many of the discrete innovations that have been happening and apply them to give a different and better experience for these new users? They will be, as a group, less savvy than the current set of users. They will also be children of the Internet making little distinction between the LAN and the WAN. Their first taste of computing will come in a connected world.

Tomorrow: The Decade That Was

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.