When the printing press was first invented few realized its potential and many saw it as just a novelty. The beginnings of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) desktop displays and printing capability likewise was not seen as a truly disruptive technology, but today we know otherwise. Of course, WYSIWYG displays coupled with the web has not completely displaced hard-copy printing, but the publishing industry is undeniably in a period of transition as a result of it.
The emergence of tools like Google and Yahoo have the potential to be highly disruptive to the desktop. Nicholas Carr's book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google, makes a strong case to reconsider our presuppositions regarding the future of corporate information processing systems. Edward Cone's article provides stunning cause to question our assumptions about how users will interact with digital information over the next decade. If the data center gets displaced by disruptive technologies, what will become of the desktop as we know it? Will it too morph into a new technology that will become a commodity, low cost, household item?
You see, if the data center goes away, if the grid wins, if companies such as Google, Yahoo, etc. emerge as the sole keepers and processing engines of the worlds information, why will the desktop still be important? Would it not make sense to displace the desktop device with a tool that does not require constant updates and maintenance?
Imagine for a moment, what would happen if we could purchase a device from the local white goods store, one that has a battery life of over 48 hours or continuous use, can be read in bright sun light, and can be recharged from solar power. What if that device has fully embedded software that never needs to be modified or updated? What if Google or Yahoo could provide all the interface tools and applications the user would ever need? Would it not make Microsoft Windows (of any flavor) or Linux on the desktop totally irrelevant?
Carr says it all comes down to economics—that is what drives business decisions, but it also drives the consumer's decisions. In March 2007, I spent two days in electronics stores to observe how consumers purchase desktop and laptop systems. I was stunned to hear customer after customer ask for a desktop or laptop computer without without Windows Vista. Many knew of the problems faced by early users of Vista. They knew about lack of driver support for printers, scanners, cameras, etc. and they wanted relief from early adopter pains. Who can blame them? But, more importantly, there are lessons we can learn from consumer reluctance to embrace something that is new, particularly if it is in any way disruptive. But there is another aspect that we must not ignore: eventually consumers overcome their hang-ups. What happens then?
Vista is well on its way to becoming a ubiquitous desktop platform. In the end, unless there are other mitigating circumstances, Microsoft has won. It may have cost a bit to get it there, but in the short term the consumer caved in. Why? Because the choice that is being offered by stores like Best Buy is Windows Vista or Mac OS. Many consumers believe that MacOS is a better platform than Microsoft Windows, but it costs more—much more!
Carr presents a compelling argument. He says "Whether you look at record companies, or newspapers, or increasingly at movie studios and television studios, you see what happens when all of this stuff gets very, very cheap. They're competing against free products, sometimes, often products produced by amateurs or volunteers." Ultimately, free is hard to beat if the quality is good enough.
Will Linux be the platform that delivers just good enough in time to create a paradigm shift from the desktop and laptop to the new-school ultra-mobile, wireless enabled, consumer device that will work transparently the world over providing previously unimaginable access to the all the information that will be sage-guarded, housed, processed, and delivered to you over the grid? We do not know. We just do not know! But we must consider what will become of those who will not, or can not, change their computing practices.
There will always be a transition market, and there will always be a residual market. This is perhaps the area that should be the target for Linux and open source solutions development, look at is as a training and preparation ground for the disruptive change that may follow. One question still begs an answer: How will all of this be delivered to the end user, the consumer?
This question, along with the current state of the server markets, will be examined in this articles Next Part (coming soon).
This article was first published on LinuxPlanet.com.