Death of the desktop

The application service provider model might have crashed and burned but this writer see it as a precursor to the cloud craze sweeping the industry.
  • Mark Jones (Unknown Publication)
  • 29 November, 2009 22:00

It was the strangest moment. Ten years ago, I'd just finished interviewing a senior executive from Citrix about this whole "thin client" hype, and he turned around to suggest I needed a new job. It wasn't that he didn't like my interviewing style - I hope. Like any good salesperson, he was completely wrapped up in his employer's world and he wanted to change the planet. "This ASP [application service provider] business is going to be big," he offered. He was using one of those hushed tones people adopt when they're trying to convince you NASA astronauts really didn't land on the moon.

I asked a few questions and it turned out he wanted to pay me US$50,000 to write a book about the ASP business. Freelance book writing would be a better gig for me than working at Network World magazine, he argued. But as an up-and-coming journalist I couldn't stomach the idea of ditching my career based on the promises of a wild-eyed American.

Fast forward to 2009 and Microsoft has finally fixed its Vista mess, launched Windows 7 and Citrix is still floating around somewhere. I decided it was time to use The Scoop podcast to revisit the thin-client story that began when mainframe systems fired into existence. And in the back of my mind I was still testing that Citrix guy's hypothesis.

So the first thing I learned on the show was that my read on the market was right. Technology analyst Sam Higgins at Longhaus said his firm's research showed CIOs are still heavily preoccupied by desktop decisions. The top three CIO priorities in 2009 are lowering the cost of desktop computing, centralised data protection, and application deployment and management.

The second important insight came from another guest, associate professor Sanjay Chawla, head of the University of Sydney's School of Information Technologies. "The internet is moving away from a communication medium to a computing platform," he noted. Of course, that's not a newsflash for most of us. But what has changed is that you don't have to look far these days to realise he's not just rehashing a tired industry cliché.

Chawla noted in passing that researchers at the University of Sydney use utility computing technologies to process terabytes of data per second gathered by giant telescopes probing the skies. And we've all heard the stories of universities who are transitioning countless thousands of student email accounts to online services.

My third guest, freelance tech journalist and long time Microsoft-watcher, David Braue, added another important piece to the puzzle. USB sticks can carry 16 gigabytes of data, which is more than enough to carry around a desktop virtual image in your pocket. Sit down at any internet-connected computer anywhere and you're up and running.

There's another interesting point that is also worth noting. Remember the days when you took receipt of your company-issue Nokia mobile phone? It was a bit like joining the police force - standard issue was the order of the day. When it comes to the desktop we are entering a new era in the enterprise where your flavour of desktop really doesn't matter. Most large employers will still prefer to buy a fleet of PCs en masse for some time, but for the rest of us it won't be too long before it's equally normal to bring your own salary-sacrificed notebook to work. Why? The simple reason is that if company data lives in a managed cloud environment, the computing device doesn't really matter, assuming it carries the right security credentials.

So it's clear to me that not only has the data processing story shifted from the desktop to the cloud, but so has the computer business itself. Microsoft's sustained pursuit of the "software + services" agenda is a proof-point, as is CEO Steve Ballmer's recent admission that the software giant's post-GFC revenues will never recover to their "pre-GFC" levels. Yes, Windows 7 is going to be part of that story because Windows-based PCs need an operating system that actually works as advertised and boots up faster than my beloved late-1990s Ford Falcon.

But Microsoft knows the big bucks are quickly flowing away from the desktop.

Braue nailed it when he described, "[the] operating system as we know it is largely complete". It really does feel like there are few major innovation hurdles left for the desktop OS in the Microsoft, Apple or open-source variants. The really interesting innovation, as always, is to be found on the internet. Maybe my Citrix mate was right after all. MIS Australia

Mark Jones is a former IT editor at The Australian Financial Review who works as a freelance journalist and media consultant. Contact him at