I've Seen the Future of Computing: It's a Screen.

Summary:In the not so far off future, computing for most of us will be reduced to remotely delivered subscriber services, running on cheap, commodity high-definition display units.The last few weeks have been a rush of virtualization and cloud-based announcements.

In the not so far off future, computing for most of us will be reduced to remotely delivered subscriber services, running on cheap, commodity high-definition display units.

The last few weeks have been a rush of virtualization and cloud-based announcements. In December, IBM announced a partnership with Canonical to deliver virtualized Ubuntu Linux desktops for enterprises.

Earlier this month VMWare followed with the availability of open source code for a virtual remote desktop viewer client, and HP countered IBM's virtual desktops with a virtual desktop blade solution with Citrix.

In the last few days, we've heard about IBM and Amazon cloud partnerships and Red Hat and Microsoft agreeing to certify each other's operating systems on their respective hypervisor platforms, Hyper-V and oVirt/KVM.

This is just the beginning of a huge rush of virtualization and clouded services announcements to come this year. On the heels of VMWare's VMWorld Europe event next week, Citrix is expected to announce that their upcoming XenServer 5 Enterprise bare-metal hypervisor will be released for free, which was previously a commercial product that used to sell for $900 per copy, and includes resource pooling/clustering and live migration capabilities which is competitive with VMWare's ESX 3.5 and VI3 stack that sells for several thousand dollars per license.

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What does all this virtual and cloud stuff mean? Why is this all happening in a rush now? It could be that a economic scarcity is acting like a catalyst -- tough times are forcing the movement to virtualization and virtual desktops in the enterprise, and it's being pushed out into the cloud, and eventually to consumers and end-users.

If we project this sort of technological change several years into the future, it might very well look something like what I wrote about during last summer.

Josef Konsumer's 2016 HD-connected "ThinTerm" may sound like science fiction, but it's really not that far-fetched. If we can look and see where we are heading with embedding Internet-enabled chipsets into Digital TV's for multimedia content streaming (such as with devices like the Roku) as well as other projects such as Ndiyo to embed thin client chips into commodity monitors, we start to see an emerging trend.

What we are seeing is the advancement of low-power high performance embedded systems for sophisticated next generation Linux based set-top devices as well as an upsurge in popularity of MIDs and Netbooks where the balance of the user experience is Internet-delivered. The future is not the "Desktop Computer" or even the "Notebook", or even today's "Netbook" or "Smartphone". The future is The Screen.

The Screen is what I believe the future end-state for personal computing will eventually become, likely within the next 10 years, or possibly even less, due to the commoditization of hypervisor virtualization technology combined with a renaissance of the centralized computing paradigm (the mainframe never died folks, he was just sleeping and waiting for this moment to arrive) and a maturation in virtual infrastructure management platforms.

These otherwise enterprise-targeted technologies will will trickle down to the end-user via the standardization of rich desktop delivery thin-client protocols (such as Novell's Compiz-enabled NOMAD for Linux RDP or Red Hat's SPICE), low-power device chipsets, broadband and high-speed wireless deployments, and adoption of High Definition/Digital TV.

Okay, forget the buzzword bingo for a minute. What is The Screen? I don't think it has been well defined what the interface or the experience really is going to look like, but I have a very good idea.

Certainly, I'm not expecting anything along the lines of Minority Report or even something like Microsoft's "Surface", although it's certainly possible that some day, people might use UIs like that for certain niche applications. Initially, early versions of The Screen will almost certainly look very much like the platforms you use now -- Windows, Mac, and definitely Linux.

The only difference is you won't own the computing hardware it runs on -- all you'll really need is a screen (an HDTV with HDMI inputs) mouse, keyboard and broadband, and you'll be buying your computing services like a utility, just like you pay your electric or Cable TV bill today. And like your Cable TV bill, you'll subscribe to computing "Channels", complete with applications and hosted data, with balls to the wall clouded backup services to match.

Someday, all these capabilities will be built into every HDTV unit, but the initial Screen will likely be deployed using some sort of carrier-provided thin client box, perhaps based on a low-power Linux device running on something like a BeagleBoard with an Android-based session manager UI with some basic local applications for cached data use or direct content streaming (a la Roku) and costing less than $100 to manufacture.

I suspect that Linux will finally make significant desktop inroads when it can be spoon-fed to consumers as "Basic Screen", much like you have your Basic Cable now. The Open Source and Free nature of Linux desktops such as Ubuntu along with Open Source desktop applications will be a compelling basic offering for Screen service providers because of the fact that they won't have to buy nearly as many software licenses to host them -- they'll develop them and tweak them in-house.

Frankly, so much of your typical desktop experience will be Web-based, so there will be little cost justification for paying extra for Windows or Mac on a subscriber channel.

Compared to the ever present Linux hardware/software compatibility issues we have today, things will "Just Work" because the provider will be able to completely tweak the environment for their subscribers. As a result of Screen deployments, today's Linux desktop migration issues will no longer exist.

However, some of you will inevitably opt to pay premium money for the Microsoft Channel or the Apple Channel, and some of you might even buy Premium Screens from Apple or another vendor that provides enhanced multimedia capabilities or some other feature that Basic Screen doesn't have.

The Playstations and XBOXen of the future will be nothing more than high-powered Screen servers for those people that want to play games -- and yet, I suspect that even those specialized functions are likely to be commoditized as integrated chip sets get more and more sophisticated. The focus will be buying on-line content from Microsoft and SONY, not the game units themselves.

And of course, in addition to our home Screens, we'll have Mobile Screens -- things like MIDs and Netbooks, as well as Smartphones. The difference between the Mobile and Netbook/MID devices of the future as opposed to what exists now is that they'll exist to connect you to your Computing Channels that you subscribe to, or to present data and services from clouded applications that you access frequently, such as what Amazon or Google is trying to create.

Local data? Sure, perhaps you'll sync up emails,  and other recent data for store and forward purposes if you get knocked of the Net (a la Google Gears) but all your important data will be in the Cloud. Ubiquitous 5G/6G/nG high speed wireless access will be everywhere, so the notion of "What if I can't get on" will be as anachronistic as we view manual typewriters or rotary phones today.

Before you say, "Stop dreaming, Perlow" I acknowledge that yes, some people will still require dedicated PCs -- like my younger brother who does 3D modeling for Hollywood movies or people who do sophisticated video editing. But most of us won't need or even want them anymore.

Why worry about maintaining systems or installing apps when we can have it spoon fed to us? Every application, game and service we could ever possibly want will be completely on-demand.

February 17, 2009 was a major step in the progression towards The Screen in that the first of the major barriers came down, which was the initial demolition of this country's analog broadcast TV infrastructure.

There will be a great many holdouts to move toward broadband-delivered digital content, particularly from the older generation, but even they won't be able to stop the march of technology towards the digital world. Eventually, when they see the benefits that The Screen brings, and how it will liberate them from the Personal Computer which has become too cumbersome and too complex to own and maintain on their own, they too will relent.

Are you waiting for The Screen? Will it happen in 5, 10, or 20 years? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Operating Systems, Cloud, CXO, Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Software, Storage, Virtualization

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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