Cost effective and easy to support, Linux's armor's chink is the large number of confusing distros and desktop options. Linux is hardly going to take the desktop world by storm but the next five months do offer one of the best time periods to demo and trial some Linux options to see if they are viable in your business.
In preparation for the likely market surge that Linux will feel, most of the key Linux desktop players – Suse, Ubuntu, Mint – have released big updates in the last several weeks. These upgrades give those looking to discover Linux for the first time (or for the first time in a long time) something especially tempting to discover.
The Mint project has especially taken the bull by the horns in recent years and introduced the Mate and Cinnamon desktops, which are especially appealing to users looking for a Windows 7-esque desktop experience with a forward looking agenda.
Also in the Linux family but decidedly its own animal, Google's ChromeOS is an interesting consideration for a company interested in a change. ChromeOS is, most likely, the most niche of the desktop options but a very special one. ChromeOS takes the tack that a business can run completely via Web interfaces with all applications being written to be accessed in this manner. And indeed, many businesses are approaching this point today but few have made it completely.
ChromeOS requires a dramatic rethinking of security and application architectures for a normal business and so will not be seeing heavy adoption. But for those unique businesses capable of leveraging it, it can be a powerful and extremely cost effective option.
Of course, an entire new category of options has appeared in recent years as well: the mobile platform. These existed when Windows XP released but they were not ready to, in any way, replace existing desktops. But during the Windows XP era the mobile platform grew significantly in computational power and the operating systems that power them. Apple iOS and Google Android have emerged as the predominant players in the end user device space.
iOS and Android, and to a lesser extent Windows Phone and Windows RT, have reinvented the mobile platform into a key communications, productivity and entertainment platform rivaling the traditional desktop. Larger mobile devices, such as the iPad, are widely displacing laptops in many places and, while different, often provide overlapping functionality.
It is becoming more and more common to see an iOS or Android device being used for non-intensive computing applications that traditionally belonged to desktop or laptop devices. Mobile platforms are hard to imagine as the sole computing platform of a business over the next few years, yet it is possible that we will see this begin to happen in fringe case businesses during this product cycle.
Of course, any talk of the desktop future must take into account changes not just in products but in architectures. Marketing around VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) has propelled virtualized and centralized computing architectures into the forefront, with the concept of hosted or "cloud" desktop offerings (including Desktop as a Service.)
While still nascent, the category of "pay by the hour" utility desktop computing will likely grow over the next several years. Of course, with so many changes coming there is a different problem that will be facing businesses. For the past two decades just about any business could safely assume that nearly all of its employees would have a Windows computer at home. So staffers would become accustomed to any current interface and possibly much of the software that they would use on a day to day basis. But this has changed.
Increasingly iOS and Android are the only devices that people have at home and for those with traditional computers keeping current Windows is less and less common while Mac OSX and Linux are on the rise. One of the key driving forces making Windows cost effective, that is a lack of training necessary, may swing from being in its favor to working actively against it.
Perhaps the biggest change that I anticipate in the next desktop cycle is not that of a new desktop choice but of a move to more heterogeneous desktop networks where many different OSes, processor architectures and deployment styles co-exist. As BYOD proliferates and support of different device types becomes necessary and as user experience changes and business apps move to web platforms, the advantages of a disparate "choose the device for the task or user" strategy will become more and more common. Businesses will be free to explore their options and choose more freely based on their unique needs.
The era of desktop lock-in is over. Whether because of market momentum or existing user experience or application limitations, the reasons that kept business tightly coupled to the Windows platform are fading quickly. The future offers a landscape of choices both in what we deploy but also in how we deploy it.
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