As we move toward 2009, the traditional desktop finds itself in an interesting position. Virtualization is fundamentally changing the way desktops are delivered, and in my opinion the debate over who makes the best desktop OS doesn't even matter. If we use market share as the scoreboard, Microsoft has won that game and is now running out the clock.
The fact that Microsoft is running out the clock is a very big deal. We're literally counting down to a new era of desktop delivery. This means that a void exists for our next generation desktop, and opportunity exists for competitors to supplant Microsoft in the desktop space. To me, the next generation desktop will be able to be viewed both online (e.g. at home, at work, at a wi-fi hotspot) and offline (e.g. while traveling on an airplane) and accessed from a myriad of devices (e.g. laptops, thin clients, iPhones/smart phones). At the end of the day, we want a simple way to deploy and manage applications, and a secure and reliable infrastructure on which they'll run. The next generation laptop is going to behave more like a DVR. It will be capable of loading live applications or running locally cached versions of an application when no network connectivity is available. Today's increasingly mobile workforce will need to access their desktop from a number of locations and clearly there is a huge opportunity for an innovative company to step in and provide that experience.
So in the not too distant future, we're going to have a simple, yet radically different desktop experience. The fact that the desktop will be so different represents a window of opportunity for Microsoft's competitors in the desktop space. Could a Linux vendor step in to fill this void? I suppose so, but Linux vendors are still fighting the stigma that their desktop operating systems are difficult to manage, regardless of how much truth there is to such a stigma. Now if you look at Apple, you have a company that ships a desktop OS that has a history of ease-of-use. To me, if anyone can seize the small window of opportunity, it would be Apple. Supplanting Microsoft would be no easy task, as Microsoft is continuing to innovate around its desktop delivery model, and Apple's opportunity is not just about gaining market share, but also the long term survival of the Mac OS.
We’re in the process of completely redefining what is meant by “desktop” and in this period companies with innovative, game changing technologies have an opportunity to reshape the IT landscape. Technology close to what’s offered by Microsoft and its partners isn’t going to cut it. I think it would take something far superior. I’m not sure I know what that “something” is, but I’m not ready to dismiss the possibility that it cannot be done.
For Apple to seize on the opportunity, they cannot go at it alone. They partnered with AT&T on the iPhone and the results speak for themselves. To redefine the desktop, Apple is going to need another partner that is equally as innovative. To me, that partner would be VMware. Together VMware and Apple could make a run at redefining the desktop (it's clear that VMware/Microsoft synergy isn't going to happen). VMware delivers the virtual infrastructure and Apple delivers the OS. Combined, we could have a new generation of desktop delivery that might eventually supplant Microsoft. Naturally, VMware isn't going to stop supporting Microsoft operating systems, but it could drive technology that brings OS X and Windows together and redefines how both are packaged and delivered. Of course, if Apple decided to go at virtualization and the desktop space alone, then Virtual Iron or Parallels could be potential acquisition targets.
As virtualization continues to expand to desktop delivery, none of the traditional management practices are going to apply to most virtual desktop architectures. So to me this is why the desktop is at such a vulnerable point. Virtualizing desktops goes way beyond a traditional migration; it’s typically a rebuild/re-architect in order to take advantage of single desktop virtual images, consolidated management, etc.
I wouldn't be surprised to see Microsoft cutoff backward compatibility in their next desktop OS release and use Kidaro and Virtual PC to present legacy Windows applications to the host OS. If you’re familiar with how Parallels works on a Mac (VM’s presence is hidden, users only see the VM's applications), Microsoft and VMware are heading down a similar road with their desktop virtualization products. In fact, Microsoft demonstrated such a capability at TechEd a few weeks ago. Most believe that the next generation user system is going to be partitioned, with a user virtual environment and a separate environment for work-related tasks. Again, virtualization software will have the capability to abstract the two yet present them as a single entity. So following the next Windows desktop release, I think that Windows is going to look a lot like OS X, complete with virtualized legacy Windows applications.
For Apple’s sake, they cannot sit on their hands as we transition to a virtualized desktop model. Even personal PCs will have to support virtualization going forward in order to provide remote access to alternate desktops. Apple needs a good virtualization strategy for the long term survival of their OS. Waiting on virtualization, is the wrong move.
Inflection points such as the redefinition of the desktop don't come around very often. If Apple is serious about contending in the desktop space, the time is now. Let's start with OS X delivered as a virtual machine appliance and then move on to application insertion, offline caching, and desktop delivery to any device such as an iPhone, thin client at work, or home PC. Waiting on or ignoring the virtual desktop would mean that Apple is trying to continue playing a game that's already over.
Posted by: Chris Wolf