The Future of the Desktop — Rendering the Operating System Irrelevant?

Xerox Star

There are few more enduring manifestations of user interface technology than that of the Graphical User Interface Desktop. Pioneered by engineers at Xerox PARC, refined by Steve Jobs and Apple and brought to masses and ingrained into our daily lives by Microsoft Windows, it is almost the first thing that comes to mind when we think of using a computer. The natural feel of choosing icons with a gesture, as opposed to memorizing command lines, somewhat demystified computers. This made them accessible to a whole new group of users, and did away with the need for intensive training and education.

The desktop is perhaps the single most important development in productivity in the history of computing. Whether you use Windows, OSX, or perhaps one of the several flavors of Linux, the same basic principles apply. Point and click; or more frequently now, touch and tap — what you see is what you get. But despite their similarity in appearance, underneath it all, each of these operating systems is inherently different. Applications that run across all are few and far between, and as soon as one goes beyond the most basic of features, a great deal of learning has to take place before one can get the most out of all the features available to them across the operating system environments.

Personal computing has seldom been in a more fragmented state. The rise of the mobile device has seen the operating system landscape become even more disjointed, and the longer lifespan of non-mobile devices means that even with Windows devices there are four separate versions currently supported by Microsoft. No one could possibly be expected to know all of the shortcuts and features of every iteration of every different operating system that they may encounter in their professional and personal lives. This lack of consistency and familiarity could impede the productivity that the desktop is trying to promote.

One thing that is consistent across most modern operating systems is the ability to run a sophisticated Internet browser. HTML5 is fast becoming the standard for delivering Web applications and the possibilities it gives for Web development are endless. Web applications are something that most of us are familiar with, and perhaps their greatest asset is being able to deliver a consistent user experience regardless of what device or operating system you happen to be using it on.

With more and more of our essential applications, files and data being hosted online, a Web-based desktop is the next logical progression from this. A SaaS-delivered GUI with quick access to HTML5 applications and data that can be accessed from any browser for the first time removes the desktop from the OS for the average user. Regardless of what device the user logs onto the Web desktop with, it will be instantly familiar to them. Different screen sizes and touch controls as opposed to using a mouse may make slight differences, but the same features and functions will be available to all users.

Undoubtedly, mobile computing has redefined the way we interact with technology, and user perceptions and expectations have changed irreversibly. Users now expect the same powerful tools and applications on the go as they do in the office. Portability is no longer seen as a barrier to functionality, and the device should not decide how work is done. This should be firmly in the hands of the user. This becomes even more apparent considering recent trends around wearable computing.

Windows 8

Microsoft has perhaps provided the best recent example of an attempt to unify native desktops. Windows 8 dropped the “Start” button for what was previously known as the Metro User Interface in order to give it the appearance of the Windows Phone operating system. The idea was to provide a consistent experience, regardless of whether the user was using mobile or desktop. The result was one of confusion and a general lack of enthusiasm among early adopters, which resulted in a major U-turn in the form of Windows 8.1 and the reinstatement of the Start button.

One possible factor in the failure of this approach to unify native desktops is that despite looking similar from the user’s point of view, underneath the hood they are very different beasts with non-compatible applications. Why an HTML5 browser-based desktop could succeed where Windows didn’t is that by the very nature of a Web app, they will run anywhere, on any device with the same functionality. As more and more applications become delivered via the Web, or were born as Web applications, it stands to reason that users will want a single online desktop, collecting the Web apps that they use regularly that can be logged onto from wherever it is needed.

A Web desktop offers the opportunity to log in instantly, bringing the user to an environment that they are comfortable with and set up in a way that they know where everything is. No five minutes spent trying to remember the correct convention to locate a certain file type. This consistency promotes productivity, the problem the desktop was originally trying to solve. A Web desktop provides further flexibility in a way that a static OS desktop cannot. Dynamically add new applications with a single click, pull in news and social feeds to the one location or subscribe to additional services in a seamless manner, putting the user in control and at the centre of the entire experience. It is also much cheaper to deploy and manage, so IT managers and CFOs will like it, too.

Who will steal a lead on their competitors and launch the first mass-adopted Web desktop is anyone’s guess. Microsoft and Apple have vested interests in prolonging the lifespans of their native desktop environments, and while Google has incorporated an app launcher into the Chrome browser, it is still some way off from offering a joined-up desktop style experience. It will be an interesting couple of years, and the change will be driven as more and more applications are delivered via the Web. Whoever can master centralizing digital tools and assets in a convenient and user-friendly, intuitive manner could make real inroads in the next big step for user productivity.

It’s easy to see how the perception is that the desktop belonged to the OS, but the truth is that the desktop should belong to the user, and it should be on the user’s terms how they set up, manage and use their desktop. Set the desktop free of the OS and enable users to get the most out of how they create, consume and share data.

Rafael Laguna is CEO and co-founder of Open-Xchange, providing leadership and strategic vision across the organization. Rafael has extensive experience in enterprise software, having previously held the position of VP Marketing and Business Development at SUSE Linux as well as being CEO of Micado, and also acts in an advisory role for the Open Source Business Foundation.

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