The complicated new face of personal computing

New platforms, new virtualization technologies, and new needs forever change personal computing.

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Desktop virtualization, at least the server-hosted model, requires a strong data center infrastructure and a shift in IT administrator mindset, "from managing a fleet of physical endpoints to managing the virtual machine that lives on the server," says IDC analyst Ian Song.

Client hypervisors, the key to enabling a bring-your-own-PC model, are less mature than server-hosted desktops, and many enterprises are wary of deploying them right now, says Gartner analyst Chris Wolf. IT shops and users alike are looking for a better security model for separating work and personal data and applications.

"That's a bit of a dicey area," Wolf says. "If I [as an employee] own the system, I don't want the company scanning all my personal information. There's a fine line between what the user is comfortable with and what the organization is comfortable with." Still, a combination of the client-hosted model and server-hosted desktops may be necessary for all types of users to gain desktop access on any device they want.

Desktop in the cloud

If desktop virtualization seems dicey, how about "desktops" that exist only in the cloud? Vendors such as Desktone are marketing "cloud-hosted desktops," and IBM is teaming up with Linux vendors and other partners to offer Microsoft-alternative desktops through Web-based cloud services.

And then there is Google. Although Gmail has captured less than 1% of the enterprise e-mail market, according to Gartner, Google has lured several million small businesses to its Google Apps suite of e-mail and productivity tools, and is now teaming up with hardware vendors to sell netbooks based on the upcoming Chrome OS.

Chrome OS is little more than a Web browser, and is designed for users who do all of their computing online, providing just enough offline access to tide them over on plane rides (and even airplanes are starting to offer wireless Web access).

Google CEO Eric Schmidt says Chrome OS is the fulfillment of the "Network Computer" vision offered in the 1990s by the now-defunct Sun, his former employer. Google believes in a future of "100% Web," in which - similar to server-hosted virtual desktops - personal computers simply become "stateless devices that are just Web browsers," says Google senior product manager Rajen Sheth. The Google approach will grow more viable over time as Internet connectivity becomes ubiquitous.

Google and Microsoft have waged a public relations war, with Google on the side of Web-based computing and Microsoft insisting that the days of locally installed software are not over. But in reality, the line between the two companies' strategies is shifting as we speak, with Microsoft increasingly moving to mobility and cloud-based versions of its key software offerings, such as Exchange, Office and SharePoint.

"We are investing a lot in making sure our stuff works across the PC, phone and browser, and we will continue to invest there," says Microsoft's Tom Rizzo, senior director of Microsoft Online Services.

Even the hardware vendors that make billions of dollars outfitting data centers with ever-bigger and better equipment are getting the message, adapting to prevent the age of mobility and virtualization from passing them by.

At the May 2010 EMC World conference, EMC CEO Joe Tucci looked forward to a world where centralized storage systems accelerate the shift away from rigid desktop environments to a mobile computing experience, in which users simply pick whatever device they want and use it for both work and play.

"I think the concept of a personal computer is going to change dramatically," Tucci said.

It's already changing. As Aberdeen Group research analyst Andrew Borg puts it, "There is no defining characteristic to differentiate what we used to call a consumer device from what we call a professional device. That barrier has dissolved."

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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