The desktop is going down. It happened before, it will happen again.
The few of us that actually used campus networks with thin clients know it beats the hell out of carrying a laptop around. You sit in a terminal anywhere in the campus and bam, that was your computer, with your environment and your files. Campus had 10Mbps local networks and LAN interconnects exceding 100Mbps. It was pretty wild.
Sadly the 1990s world at large didn’t have 100Mbps interconnects or anything remotly like that. In the world at large we were stuck in local computers, direly underconnected and not all that powerfull. For a number of reasons the 90s sucked.
By the end of the 90’s Oracle figured out the network would be the computer. A number of people got onboard but the technology wasn’t there yet, lets just say a lot of Java and dialup was involved, and it all failed. Then laptops started getting better and you could lug around an underpowered portable version of your unexciting, underconnected personal computer. It still sucked, only slighty less. Meanwhile, techies (as the journalism punditry likes to call us), tryed to pull together the tatters of connectivity, a open wifi here, a dsl there, into something ressembling the ubiquous campus network. IMAP servers, webviews of documents, IRC networks, all slow, all bleak, all cobbled together with ductape, spit and servers living beneath the raised floor of some datacenter or other.
And at some point the pundits (with the help of the industry of course) discovered The Cloud. It’s always on, it’s great, all your stuff is there. It’s great for individuals cause the cloud is gmail. It’s great for companies cause it’s outsourcing (ASP and SaaS never quite took did they) and virtualization (we already established virtualization is good). Everybody’s happy!
Everybody, except Microsoft of course. Microsoft spent a good deal of resources making sure email meant outlook and corporate “web interfaces” meant internet explorer. Now people are using linux powererd netbooks to access gmail using firefox. And there’s gmail for enterprises too. How the hell did that happen ? People were buying cheap computers just to check email, browse and play farmville around the house. The GoodEnough culture on which Microsoft had thrived and made billions had just turned against them. The netbook was good enough.
Meanwhile small, low powered devices were getting less low powered. Nowadays the Cortexs and Snapdragons are standing just at the other side of the bridge netbooks built and they’re good enough. Some are even really good. Today we’re at 840x480 beatifull OLED screens powered by 1GHz CPUs with hardware accelerated HD decoding and that’s not only better than what we had when Oracle tried but it’s also inside our pocket and always connected to the Internet at 10 to 100 times the speed we had then. Going forward the unicorn apple tablet and the new Android devices will probably make the experience even more seamless and use more obiquous. As capable devices trickle down the price points more and more people will transition to mobile from aging desktops, not to mention the billions who never seen used a desktop and will jump right into gmail and ovi.
And thus, the desktop will become irrelevant.