Desktop of the future

It might be in the cloud, it might be virtual or it might be the size of a brick. But it won't be the traditional PC tower and monitor.

Metro Health Hospital, a healthcare system serving 130,000 patients across Michigan, is already using what some consider the desktop of the future. The hospital has rolled out server-hosted virtual desktops to every employee no matter where they are or what client device they use.


Follow along a slideshow of the future of desktops that are happening today.


While employees within the hospital primarily use thin clients to access their virtualized desktops, those outside the hospital can use whatever device they want, says Chris House, senior network analyst at the healthcare firm.

"It works in the hospital, but it also works over the Internet because it's just Remote Desktop [Protocol]," House says, explaining that VMware's Virtual Data Infrastructure (VDI) uses RDP to communicate with the client devices.

The only data that passes across the network are mouse clicks and screen changes, ensuring optimal performance. But unlike other remote presentation technologies, such as Citrix Xen App (formerly Presentation Server), users aren't accessing only applications, but are actually able to access their complete Windows XP desktop just as if it were local.

The overall effect is greater security and flexibility — without a hit on productivity. "We have remote transcriptionists who deal with medical records and information, and they're able to access their sessions remotely from their homes over their high-speed Internet connection and then work that way," House says. "They get our desktop, and we don't have to worry about what they're using as their home computer."

Metro Health's setup is also far more secure than traditional PCs. Not only have the virtual desktops been locked down so that employees can't use non-sanctioned peripherals such as CD drives and USB sticks, but with VDI, the actual remote PC sessions run on centralized VMware ESX servers in the hospital's secure data center. This ensures that the hospital complies with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations, as sensitive patient data never leaves the hospital. "It's very secure and easy to lock down," he says.

Changing of the guard

It seems like the enterprise desktop has been the same for decades: PC tower, monitor, Windows operating system, Microsoft productivity applications. But experts say the desktop of the future may look and feel quite different. Possibilities include server-hosted desktop virtualization, the ubiquitous Microsoft Office being replaced by applications in the cloud such as Google Apps, Linux making huge inroads in terms of desktop OS, and the venerable tower PC you're probably using right now quickly becoming obsolete.

Here's a preview of what to expect over the next five years or so (read a related story on who the experts pick as the favorites in the desktop arena in five years):

One thing users and experts agree on is that the traditional PC tower is practically dead, and in five years, other form factors, such as laptops, thin clients and ultra-small computers will be more the norm.

"The actual computer part will become much smaller," says James Gaskin, an author, speaker and Network World tester in Houston. "Look at the Apple Mini, the Shuttle PC or the all-in-one PCs like the Mac, where they stick all the workings of the computer on the back of the monitor. In five years, the desktop form factor will have shrunk even more than it has today."

Michael Rose, an analyst at IDC, agrees and notes that laptops will become far more common in terms of the typical enterprise desktop, because of the need for mobility and especially as virtualization takes greater hold. "My sense is we'll see a continuing trend away from desktops toward notebooks," he says. "And when you add desktop virtualization into the mix, there's even a possibility it could drive sales of more thin-client products, especially if we're talking the server-hosted desktop model like VDI."

In fact, IDC estimates that shipments of laptops will overtake PC shipments this year. While in 2007, PCs accounted for 37% of the market, and laptops 30%, in 2008, the analyst firm projects that PCs will drop to 35.3% and laptops will hit 36.3%.

In a March report, the analyst firm found that worldwide PC shipments were expected to grow 12.8% in 2008, but that the growth was fueled primarily by the market for portable computers. The firm also predicts that thin-client shipments will more than double over the next five years to 7.2 million worldwide.

Function over form

While most experts expect the desktop to shrink, others say that in the future, form factor will be irrelevant. "It will have a keyboard, a mouse and a display, but whether that is connected to a tower, a laptop, a thin client or just coming out of a hole in the wall, I really think that won't matter," says Brian Madden, an independent technology analyst and author in Bethel Park, Pa. "Instead, it's all going to be about use cases, delivering the right user experience and right application for the right use case."

Madden is a proponent of what he calls the employee-owned PC. In that scenario, employees can use whatever client they like, whether it's a corporate-provided PC or a laptop from home. The idea is that the employee retains control over the PC, its applications, the Internet sites it can reach and the peripherals it can support. But when they hook it into the corporate network, they are delivered a virtual desktop that runs locally, in much the same manner as VMware's current VMware ACE product. That corporate desktop is configured with the enterprise applications they need but is completely locked down and separate from the host PC.

Madden cites new technologies such as VMware Fusion, which lets Macintosh users seamlessly run virtualized Windows, and the Kidaro Managed Workspace as enabling tools for his vision. Kidaro, which was recently acquired by Microsoft, wraps enterprise data and applications in a virtual machine hosted locally, but it also includes something called Trim Transfer, which enables organizations to download virtual machines to desktops efficiently, without requiring an excess of network bandwidth.

"What's cool is that using something like VMware Fusion or Kidaro, we can have a seamless integration between the host machine and the Windows virtual machine," he says. "So I'll have a Windows desktop sitting in front of me, and within that Windows desktop, I have my personal Windows desktop and the corporate Windows virtual machine running locally. I have corporate Word and personal Word, and corporate Outlook and personal Internet Explorer."

The best part is that the corporate environment remains secure, locked down and controlled. "The corporate virtual machine can come with certain security settings so it can get on the corporate VLAN," Madden explains. "But the host can only stay on the VLAN connected to the Internet, without access to anything else."

Madden says such a scenario will be necessary as Generation Y moves into corporate leadership positions. "Users want more freedom and flexibility," he says. "The so-called echo generation, the MySpace, YouTube, text messaging, cell phone generation is turning 30 years old this year," he says. "They're starting to move up pretty highly in companies, and they won't put up with the corporation saying you can't change your device."

Opening up the desktop

Once desktop virtualization scenarios take hold, the choices for desktop operating system will be opened up a bit more, experts say. For example, in a VDI scenario, the actual client computer can use any operating system, be it Linux Ubuntu or Apple Macintosh OSX, and still seamlessly work with corporate applications standardized on Windows XP or Vista.

"That's what we're seeing here – you just use what you like, thin clients, PCs, Macs or even Linux," Metro Health's House says.

Others say they see Linux perhaps outstripping Windows, especially for organizations that don't require custom programs and rely more on typical Office-type applications. "Five years down the road, Linux will have a bigger chunk of at least the small business market," Gaskin says.

As proof, he says he recently switched two of his four PCs over from Windows to Linux, one using Ubuntu and the other configured with Foresight.

"I used to do 80% of my work on the Windows PCs and 20% on Linux, but now it's reversed," Gaskin says. "Now, it's really 90% on the Linux system. On Linux, I have my Firefox browser and OpenOffice, and I can do all the things I normally do for most of my day, browsing, writing, presentations and spreadsheets. All for the price of zero. And that's pretty compelling.

He says that a plus for Linux is its openness. "I got Ubuntu Linux with OpenOffice about six months ago, when Microsoft's Office 2007 came out," he says, noting that Office 2007 uses new XML-based document extensions. "Those docx files were making a big problem because you couldn't read them with Office 2003, and suddenly, Office was incompatible with Office."

When a colleague sent him a Word file with the new docx extension, however, Ubuntu Linux had no problem working with it. "I couldn't open it on my XP with OpenOffice, but the Linux version of OpenOffice Ubuntu could read, open and convert those docx files. So Linux was ahead of Windows by far there."

But beyond consumers and small businesses, most experts don't see Microsoft losing too much operating system market share, at least in five years.

"Today, we live in a Windows world, and in 2013, we'll still be in a Windows world," Madden says. "I'm a Mac user personally, but corporate applications are run on Windows and that's just how it is."

Metro Health's House agrees. "I don't know if anyone will challenge Microsoft in the OS arena," he says. "From our healthcare point of view, all of our applications are written for Windows, so we don't think twice about running anything else."

One caveat is Microsoft's OS licensing policies on virtualization, says IDC's Rose. Currently, if enterprises wish to run Windows in a virtual PC environment, they need to buy into Microsoft's Software Assurance long-term licensing and pricing model.

"Software Assurance has about a 1% penetration rate, so obviously, that's a pretty significant way to kind of squelch adoption of virtualization on the desktop," Rose says, noting that it may lead some enterprises to consider alternatives such as Linux on the desktop.

But more likely, he says, is that Microsoft will realize that virtualization is actually good for its market share. "From Microsoft's, and our perspective, desktop virtualization is a win-win because Microsoft doesn't lose any OS licenses," Rose says. "If anything, it's good for Microsoft because it will probably mean there will be more Windows footprints out there."

Collaboration in the cloud

That said, experts say that even five years down the road, Microsoft will continue to dominate in terms of desktop applications, like the ubiquitous Microsoft Office suite.

"I see Microsoft as dominant in five years, solely because inertia is the strongest physical force," Gaskin says. While other, more open desktop suites, like StarOffice and OpenOffice, will make inroads, Microsoft's lead will be too much to overcome, he says.

A big factor here is that it's still much harder for typical users to purchase Linux PCs outfitted with OpenOffice than it is Windows PC with Microsoft Office. "Linux still has some things they need to fix, mainly because the vast majority of people aren't going to work harder to get Linux and OpenOffice than they are to get Microsoft," Gaskin says. "So the onus is on Linux to make it easy to use and install."

Another alternative is to access office productivity applications over the Internet, using services like Google Apps. Once again, experts say the Google choice will work for some enterprises, but for the most part, it won't be able to handle the varied vertical market applications that today's Windows-based tools can.

"In five years, we'll see some big name corporations switch to Google Apps," Madden says, noting that his firm actually uses it currently for e-mail and collaboration. "It's great, but what are the applications that actually make corporations go around? There are a lot of corporations that use very customized applications, and probably five of them will be covered by Google Apps. It's not going to make a big dent in a typical enterprise."

Instead of typical office applications, experts say the sweet spot for online applications like Google Apps is in collaboration, especially as more organizations become virtual and distributed.

"For the most part, people don't need Google Apps even today -- everybody has Office on their computer," Gaskin says. "But where it makes sense is for online collaboration, with tools like HyperOffice."

As an example, he says he knows of a wine importer with employees and vendors scattered across 23 time zones. "It uses HyperOffice to store documents, share calendars and share overall information. Collaboration is becoming much more important, and I see a lot of those applications moving to the cloud."

Attacking the online/offline problem

A big problem, however, for applications such as Google Apps and HyperOffice that run in the cloud is that they have limited offline capabilities. Although high-speed Internet access is becoming more ubiquitous, there are still places where a connection can't be made, and users can't work.

"Every knowledge worker or advanced user is going to need offline capability," Madden says. "Maybe someday bandwidth will be truly ubiquitous, even in the subway and airplanes and the middle of the desert. But that will be a while. It won't be in five years."

Google is attempting to tackle the problem with its Google Gears API, which lets developers create offline capabilities for their online applications. Similarly, Adobe is offering Adobe AIR, which enables Internet Flash-based applications to work offline. And finally, Microsoft offers Silverlight, which does the same thing for Internet-based .Net applications.

"People say Google Gears, AIR and Silverlight all compete against each other, because they all let rich Internet applications run online and offline, and this will be the new battleground. Whoever wins this is going to win the next application architecture battle," Madden says.

Right now, he says Microsoft has the advantage because Silverlight uses common tools, such as Visual Studio and C#, while AIR requires knowledge of ActionScript and Gears requires high-level Java programming knowledge. "The majority of business applications today are Microsoft applications written on the .Net platform," he says. "And Silverlight will dovetail right into that. Google Gears won't make a dent in the corporate world, but Silverlight could."

And this online/offline dichotomy is a problem not only for rich Internet applications, but it also affects desktop virtualization scenarios like VDI, which also require some kind of network connection.

For its part, VMware recently demoed what it calls VDI Offline, which enables users accessing their server-hosted VDI virtual desktops to take them with them when they disconnect from the network.

"We've demonstrated that technology, but we don't have a product in that space yet," says Jerry Chen, VMware's senior director of enterprise desktop. "We have the technologies to run it offline, with our ACE Workstation product, and we can also run it online with our VDI. We showed an early concept of moving it back and forth, between the online and offline environments, but it's just a concept right now."

And that's the biggest challenge experts hope will be tackled in five years. Although many pieces of this future virtualized vision currently exist, they're all separate piece-meal products. In the future, however, enterprises should be able to purchase more integrated, fully functional products.

"Today, there is no one vendor or one integrated solution that can truly allow IT to deliver desktops and applications with one product, one platform and one framework that allows any user from any device to access any application or any data online/offline from any form factor anywhere," Madden says. "Even though all the technologies currently exist for the most part."

He portends more mergers and consolidations, followed by the availability of integrated products in five years. "It will take a while to shake out, but eventually, we'll get to where they're building one, integrated desktop solution that an IT person in 2013 can go out and buy and deploy."

< More: Top desktop players in five years >

< Slideshow: Top desktops of the future, here today >

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