The basic features of the desktop we see today came into prominence for the mass market with Microsoft Windows 3.1, more than a decade ago. A lot has changed in the last decade. But the way we interact with the computer has not. There have been a few efforts in the recent past like David Gelernters Scopeware (based on his LifeStreams concept articulated in the mid-1990s), but they have had extremely limited appeal.
Lets first look at the changes that have taken place in the past decade which are relevant for us as we consider what the new desktop should be.
Dramatic Increase in Processing Power: Moores Law has been relentless, and we now have CPUs which are touching speeds of 3 Ghz on the desktop. This has meant that we use smaller and smaller percentage of the processing power available to us. This has been nicely summarized by John Robb: I have 95% of my PC’s processor available at any given moment. In a year that will probably be 98%, in three years it will be 99%. This model of the Internet is so messed up. The fact that over 90% of the computing horsepower on the Internet sits idle at any given moment is insane.”
Internet Applications to the Fore: The email client and the web browser have taken over as the two applications in which we spend most of our time. Both have been driven by standards: POP, IMAP and SMTP for email and HTML and HTTP for the web. The result has been that any email client and web browser can work on the desktop. This commoditisation has almost extinguished Netscape as people have tended to gravitate to the Microsoft applications on the desktop. At the end of the day, the applications do not matter; the functionality of emailing and browsing the web is what people want. The one application which has resisted standardisation so far has been Instant Messaging.
MS Office as the Writing environment: The integrated suite of Word, Excel and PowerPoint (whether legally bought or pirated) has become the desktop productivity suite. We no longer write letters, we create DOC files. We no longer make presentations, we do PPTs. The file formats have become as synonymous as Xerox is for copying.
Bandwidth Bridging LANs and WANs: Computers are now no longer isolated, but interconnected. 100 Mbps LANs are the norm. Multi-megabit connectivity to the Internet is assumed in the developed markets in offices and homes, with a fraction of that in the emerging markets of the worlds. The Internet has bifurcated into two: in the developed world, there is little difference between LAN-WAN speeds, but in the emerging markets, per capita bandwidth is still pathetically poor, with the LAN-WAN ratios exceeding 100:1 for the most part.
Among other developments in the past few years which came and promised much for the desktop but have not lived up to expectations are Java, Flash, P2P and Linux. Java has become much more of a programming platform for the server-side. Flash has still not become as widespread though it is slowly increasing in popularity, embedded within the browser. P2P, for a while, meant Napster. But the courts and the music industry took care of that. Linux never did make much headway on the desktop, even though open source applications like Evolution, Mozilla, OpenOffice and GAIM have in their recent releases become more than good enough to provide a viable desktop alternative.
Innovation on the desktop has all but come to a halt. Until now.
An interesting combine of standards and applications promise to make better use of the resource which is the most scarce of them all: our time and attention.
Tomorrow: New Ideas
“Rethinking the Desktop”