Microsoft gets it exactly wrong

The other day Craig Mundie, head of Microsoft Research, said “There will be a successor to the desktop; it will be the room.”

I think things are headed in exactly the opposite direction. Everything that has happened with computing and telephony in the last fifteen years has pointed away from engaging in these activities in a fixed location. Mobile computing is just the latest part of the overall trend, but it will be what finally eliminates the personal desktop computer once and for all.

Consider what effect the web had on the way people use computers. Back in the dark ages (aka the 1980s) if you wanted to do a thing on a computer you bought a disc with a piece of software then used that software to generate whatever data you needed and stored that data on a second disc. If you were fortunate enough to be using software that was widely distributed (e.g. WordPerfect) you could take the data with you and access it on another computer. Unfortunately floppies were so small that only a dozen documents would fit on them, which meant that you generally had to make a conscious choice about which data to bring.

In the early days of the consumer web email access was the same way. You could technically log into your POP3 account from anywhere, but it was really designed to be used from a single computer with all your contacts, old messages, etc. on it. The rise of Hotmail and other web-based email packages changed all of that. Suddenly you had access to your email from everywhere. Server-based email vendors like Microsoft eventually got on board and now even corporate email is (or can be) web based.

No-install software on the web still hasn’t turned out to be as all-encompasing as some people are predicting, which has given rise to another way people take it with them: the laptop. What percentage of people under thirty use a laptop as their primary personal computer? Two of my teeneaged nephews got laptops for christmas… I suspect they will never own their own desktops. As more applications become feasible on the web netbooks are cropping up to replace laptops.

These days the only people still buying desktops are corporations (because they’re cheaper and frankly work better when you’re going to force the user to sit in the same place for 40 hours a week anyway) and gamers (because they’re more powerful.) Gamers are already moving to laptops in a big way, and I expect the business world will follow within the next ten years.

Perhaps the cloud-based services (like web email, in-browse productivity apps, etc.) would be well served by the computer as a room, but web browsing isn’t as universal as it used to be.. People tend to get uncomfortable when they don’t have their favorite browser, their set of plugins, and their bookmarks surrounding their web experience. It feel like even web browsing is a pretty personal experience.

What do you think? Do you see a place for these big computing experiences?


5 Responses to “Microsoft gets it exactly wrong”

  1. Brian 'Psychochild' Green replied on :

    I don’t agree that desktops are going away. The thing a lot of people tend to forget is that not everyone is equal in the world. Some people are not able to afford highly portable machines as we can. No matter how cheap laptops get, you can often find a more powerful desktop for even cheaper.

    Likewise, something as elaborate as a room-sized interface is not going to be affordable, either. I suspect that between these two competing technologies, we’ll see wearable computing before we see room-sized interfaces.

  2. Matthew Weigel said on :

    “The rise of Hotmail and other web-based email packages changed all of that.”

    Well, so did IMAP, and to a lesser extent supporting protocols like IMSP and LDAP (for your address book and the like). Still, that points to there being even more effort, and pre-web effort, to provide data portability (as do things like AFS, which is largely dead now but 15 years ago was amazing for letting you “take” all of your data with you on whatever computer).

  3. Joe wrote on :

    @Brian: Netbooks are pretty damn cheap. It’s hard to beat a $200 computer that you can take with you. The cheapest desktops start around there for just the system (without monitor and keyboard), though obviously the $200 desktop is more powerful than the $200 netbook.

    At the moment the R&D costs of those low-end systems are subsidized by the higher end systems that companies and gamers buy. If that subsidy shift to mostly build portable and mobile computers, I just don’t see the low-end repurposing stuff just to stick to the desktop.

    @Matthew: Yeah, that’s a good point.

  4. lewis shepherd commented on :

    I think you’re not stretching your mind enough in terms of where the technology is heading … and from that, the capabilities. On the hardware front: projection, 3D vision, and chip-computational power are all getting cheaper and yet more powerful. Within several years the hardware for an immersive environment will be way affordable for any home or office. Meanwhile, the software side of this is becoming really attractive and capable: of COURSE you’ll want own personal data & environment to follow you around, way beyond today’s mere “loading my web-based bookmarks into whatever browser I’m using”. It will be more like, “I just walked into this conference room at a partner’s office, and after identifying myself with OpenID [or something] all or my online services, mail, software, docs, storage, etc., is available to me here… as it will be likewise when I get home to my living room.” The notion of a “laptop” will change accordingly; in most cases you’ll just use any keyboard available, and/or a hand-controller (Wii-style) or just the camera-based recognition (Natal).

  5. Joe said on :

    I’m right there with you about what will be available hardware-wise. I just think the 3D vision side of things will be far more popular than the projection side of things.

    I am not optimistic that computing environments will be portable enough that signing into any nearby computer to do whatever it is you want to do. It would be great if that could happen though.

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