The Desktop Revolution Is Upon Us

With the pending end of support for Windows XP looming just around the proverbial corner, it is time to take stock of the desktop landscape and make hard decisions. Windows XP has dominated the desktop landscape in both home and business for more than a decade. Sure Windows 7, and to some small degree Windows 8, have widely replaced it, there is still a huge Windows XP install base and many companies have failed to define their long term strategy in the post-XP world and are still floundering to find their footing.

A little context is, I feel, pretty important. Today it may seem a foregone conclusion that Microsoft will “own” the business desktop space with Mac OSX fighting for a little piece of the action that Microsoft barely notices. This status quo has been in place for a very long time – longer than the typical memory of an industry that experiences such a high degree of change. But things have not actually been this way for so long.

Let’s look instead to the landscape of 1995. Microsoft had a powerful home user product, Windows 95, and were beginning to be taken seriously in the business space. But their place there, outside of DOS, was relatively new and Windows 3.11 remained their primary product. Microsoft had strong competition from many fronts including Mac OS and OS/2 plus many smaller niche players. UNIX was making itself known in high end workstations. Linux existed by had not yet entered the business lexicon.

The Microsoft business desktop revolution happened in 1996 with the landmark release of Windows NT 4.0 Workstation. Windows NT 4 was such a dramatic improvement in the desktop experience, architecture, stability and networking capability that it almost instantly redefined the industry. It was Windows NT 4 that created the momentum that made Microsoft ubiquitous in the workplace. It was NT 4 that defined much of what we think of as modern computing. NT 4 displaced all other competitors relegating Mac OS to the most niche of positions and effectively, completely eliminating OS/2 and many other products. It was in the NT 4 era that the concept of the Microsoft Certified Professional and the MCSE began and where much of the corpus of rote knowledge of the industry was created. NT 4 introduced us to pure 32-bit computing in the x86 architectural space. It was the first mainstream operating system built with the focus being on being networked.

Windows NT 4 grew from interesting newcomer to dominate the desktop space between 1996 and 2001. In the interim Windows 2000 Pro was released but, like Vista, this was really a sidelined and marginalized technology preview that did little to displace the incumbent desktop product. It was not until 2001, with the release of Windows XP, that Windows NT 4 had a worthy successor. A product of extreme stability with enough new features and additional gloss to warrant a wide-spread move from the old platform to the new. NT 4 would linger on for many more years but would slowly fade away as users demanded newer features and access to newer hardware.

Windows NT 4 and Windows XP had a lot in common. Both were designed around stability and usability, not as platforms for introducing broad change to the OS itself. Both were incremental improvements over what was already available. Both received more large scale updates (Service Packs in Microsoft terms) than other OSes before and after them with NT 4 having seven (or even eight depending on how you count them) and XP having three. Each was the key vanguard of a new processor architecture, NT 4 with the 32bit x86 platform and XP being the first to have an option for the 64bit AMD64 architecture. Both were the terminal releases of their major kernel version. Windows NT 4 and Windows XP together held unique places in the desktop ecosystem with penetration numbers that might never be seen again by any product in that category.

After nearly eighteen years, that dominance is waning. Windows 7 is a worthy successor to the crown but it failed to achieve the same iconic status as Windows XP and it was rapidly followed by the dramatically changed Windows 8 and now Windows 8.1 both built on the same fundamental kernel as Windows 7 (and Vista too.)

The field is different today. Mobile devices; phones, tablets and the like; have introduced us to new operating system options and paradigms. The desktop platform is not a foregone conclusion as the business platform of choice. Nor is the Intel/AMD processor architecture a given as ARM has begun to make serious inroads and looks to be a major player in every space where Intel and AMD have held sway these last two decades.

This puts businesses into the position of needing to decide how they will focus their end user support energy in the coming years. There are numerous strategies to be considered.
The obvious approaches, those that I assume nearly all businesses will take if for no other reason than to maintain status quo, is to either settle into a “wait and see” plan that involves implementing Windows 7 today and hoping that the new interface and style of Windows 8 goes away or that they will find an alternative between now and when Windows 7 support ends. This strategy suffers from focusing on the past and triggering an earlier than necessary upgrade cycle down the road while leaving businesses behind on technology today. Not a strategy that I would generally recommend but very likely the most common strategy as it allows for the least “pain today” – a common trend in IT. Going with Windows 7 represents an accumulation of technical debt.

Those businesses willing to really embrace the Microsoft ecosystem will look to move to Windows 8 and 8.1 to get the latest features, greatest code maturity and to have the longest support cycle available to them. This, I feel, is more forward thinking and embraces some low threshold pain today in order to experience productivity gains tomorrow. This is, in my opinion, the best investment strategy for companies that truly wish to stick with the Microsoft ecosystem.

However, outside of the Microsoft world, other options are now open to us that, realistically, were not available when Windows NT 4 released. Most obvious is Apple’s Mac OSX Mavericks. Apple knows that Microsoft is especially vulnerable in 2014 with Windows XP support ending and users fearing the changes of Windows 8 and is being very aggressive in their technical strategy both on the hardware side with the release of a dramatic new desktop device – the black, cylindrical Mac Pro – and the free release (for those on Apple’s hardware, of course) of Mac OSX 10.9. They are pushing hard to get non-Mac users interested in their platform and to get existing users updated and using the latest features. Apple has made huge inroads into Windows territory over the last several years and they know full well that 2014 is they biggest opportunity to take a sizable market chunk all at once. Apple has made their Mac platform a serious contender in the office desktop space and is worth serious consideration. More and more companies are either adding Macs to their strategy or switching to Mac altogether.

The other big player in the room is, of course, Linux. It is easy to make the proclamation that 2014 will be the “Year of the Linux Desktop” which, of course, it is not. However, Linux is a powerful, mature option for the business desktop and with the industry’s steady move to enterprise web-based applications the previous prohibitions against Linux have significantly faded. Linux is a strong contender today if you can get it in the door. Cost effective and easy to support Linux’s armor’s chink is the large number of confusing distros and desktop options. Linux is hardly going to take the desktop world by storm but the next five months do offer one of the best time periods to demo and trial some Linux options to see if they are viable in your business. In preparation for the likely market surge that Linux will feel most of the key Linux desktop players, Suse, Ubuntu and Mint, have released big updates in the last several weeks giving those looking to discover Linux for the first time (or for the first time in a long time) something especially tempting to discover. The Mint project has especially taken the bull by the horns in recent years and introduced the Mate and Cinnamon desktops which are especially appealing to users looking for a Windows 7-esque desktop experience with a forward looking agenda.

Also in the Linux family but decidedly its own animal, Google’s ChromeOS is an interesting consideration for a company interested in a change. ChromeOS is, most likely, the most niche of the desktop options but a very special one. ChromeOS takes the tack that a business can run completely via web interfaces with all applications being written to be accessed in this manner. And indeed, many businesses are approaching this point today but few have made it completely. ChromeOS requires a dramatic rethinking of security and application architectures for a normal business and so will not be seeing heavy adoption but for those unique businesses capable of leveraging it, it can be a powerful and extremely cost effective option.

Of course, an entire new category of options has appeared in recent years as well – the mobile platforms. These existed when Windows XP released but they were not ready to, in any way, replace existing desktops. But during the Windows XP era the mobile platforms grew significantly in computational power and the operating systems that power them, predominantly Apple iOS and Google Android, have come into existence and become the most important players in the end user device space.

iOS and Android, and to a lesser extent Windows Phone and Windows RT, have reinvented the mobile platform into a key communications, productivity and entertainment platform rivaling the traditional desktop. Larger mobile devices, such as the iPad, are widely displacing laptops in many places and, while different, often provide overlapping functionality. It is becoming more and more common to see an iOS or Android device being used for non-intensive computing applications that traditionally belonged to desktop or laptop devices. Mobile platforms are hard to imagine being able to be the sole computing platform of a business over the next few years but it is possible that we will see this begin to happen in fringe case businesses during this product cycle.

Of course, any talk of the desktop future must take into account changes not just in products but in architectures. Marketing around VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) has propelled virtualized and centralized computing architectures into the forefront and with the the concept of hosted or “cloud” desktop offerings (including Desktop as a Service.) While still nascent the category of “pay by the hour” utility desktop computing will likely grow over the next several years.

Of course, with so many changes coming there is a different problem that will be facing businesses. For the past two decades just about any business could safely assume that nearly all of its employees would have a Windows computer at home where they would become accustomed to any current interface and possibly much of the software that they would use on a day to day basis. But this has changed. Increasingly iOS and Android are the only devices that people have at home and for those with traditional computers keeping current Windows is less and less common while Mac OSX and Linux are on the rise. One of the key driving forces making Windows cost effective, that is a lack of training necessary, may swing from being in its favor to working actively against it.

Perhaps the biggest change that I anticipate in the next desktop cycle is not that of a new desktop choice but of a move to more heterogeneous desktop networks where many different OSes, processor architectures and deployment styles co-exist. As BYOD proliferates and support of different device types becomes necessary and as user experience changes and business apps move to web platforms the advantages of a disparate “choose the device for the task or user” strategy will become more and more common. Businesses will be free to explore their options and choose more freely based on their unique needs.

The era of desktop lock-in are over. Whether because of market momentum or existing user experience or application limitations – the reasons that kept business tightly coupled to the Windows platform are fading quickly. The future offers a landscape of choices both in what we deploy but also in how we deploy it.

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