TECH TALK: Rethinking the Desktop: Desktop to Browser to …

Last week, we saw how a set of new ideas has the potential to become the foundation for the next-generation desktop. These ideas included weblogs, RSS, publish-subscribe, outlines, open source, XML and web services, and IM/SMS. Before we discuss how these ideas can be integrated together, let us step back and take a look at how our work and use of the computer has changed in the past decade.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Personal Computer was just that – our very own. It was not networked. It has self-sufficient as a standalone machine. We used it at home for games, accounting, writing letters and little else. In the office, the computer was just becoming part of the network. Those were the heydays of Novell Netware. We discovered how we could use desktop productivity applications and share files with other users on the network. Enterprise applications were just starting to come into their own. The desktop notion didn’t really exist in the days of the DOS command prompt. In the early days of Microsoft Windows, the desktop meant icons and folders.

Much of this changed with the advent of the Internet and the Web Browser. Mosaic and then Netscape opened up the wide world of the Web on the computer. Suddenly, one could read documents and interact with computers across the world. Email and later Instant Messaging came to the fore as the computer morphed into a communications and collaboration tool. Sun’s mantra – the network is the computer – has epitomised this period of the late 1990s till about now.

Our work pattern too changed: so much more information to be managed as everything became HTML-ised or Web-enabled, they were so many more people to interact with, and so many more conversation threads to keep with. But in all this, our desktop changed little. Yes, we got some new applications (email and IM clients, and the web browser), but the computer was still little help to manage a world which had become almost suddenly become much richer and complex.

Even as the processing power of computers has kept on doubling every 18 months, our software has fallen behind, using less and less of what is available on the desktop. Consider also the screens that we see in front of us: what was a 14-inch monitor may now have become a 17-inch LCD screen, increasing the visible area by just 50% in a decade. It is almost like we are riding bullock carts on six-lane highways.

However, there are signs of hope as we look ahead to see what the next-generation desktop should become. What is needed is a set of applications which better leverage the most critical resources of today: our time and attention. Userland’s Radio, a client-based blogging platform (with an integrated news aggregator and web server) and Groove, a peer-to-peer collaboration platform, are two examples of applications that showcase the desktop’s future. Between them, they capture two key trends which will be the cornerstones for tomorrow’s desktops – the two-way web which enables writing as easily as it does reading, and collaboration between ad hoc groups across geography and enterprises.

Tomorrow: The Next Generation Desktop

“Rethinking the Desktop”

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.