Desktops are becoming extinct

Desktops are becoming extinct

Summary: All the talk about web applications got reader Micheal Stanley thinking. Will we get to the point where desktop computers as we know them will no longer be relevant?


All the talk about web applications got reader Micheal Stanley thinking. Will we get to the point where desktop computers as we know them will no longer be relevant? As long as you can get your work done will it matter whether you're using Windows, Linux, MacOS, Android, WebOS, or something else? Micheal shares his vision for the future in today's guest column. --Ed

A clear trend is emerging that favors applications designed to run in web browsers. Even Microsoft is looking at extending their office suite to the web, and of course Google has had an offering for some time now. By designing their programs to run inside a browser, developers can effectively avoid the issue of platform compatibility. With careful coding, any computer that can run a web browser will be able to run those web based applications.

The shift towards browser-based applications means we’ll no longer be tied to a certain type of platform.The role of the desktop is getting smaller every day. We can have the same office software on our desktops, laptops, smart phones, PDA's, and anything else with a web browser. Christopher Dawson blogged on ZDNet about how his experience in the cloud is going. Of course not everyone can do everything they need on the web yet, but it is getting closer every day.

Two of the biggest issues right now are cloud availability and security. People on slower connections will certainly have to be patient, and there are times when the internet is not accessible at all. In addition, increased use of browsers has attracted the attention of criminal hackers, who have increasingly targeted browsers over the past few years.

Even with these problems, though, there is a definite trend towards web based development, and it’s having an effect on how we use our computers. More and more you see people getting email through their smart phones and other portable devices. The role of the desktop is getting smaller every day. Some argue that desktops will never go away, but it is inevitable that at some point the architecture of computers will have to undergo changes....

Just as transportation evolved from walking to horse drawn carriages and eventually to cars, desktops will adapt to new ways of being used, or at some point they’ll be replaced by newer technology. No technology is immune to evolution. Operating systems have undergone major changes throughout the years. As with antique cars, some people will always be attached to older technology, but as a whole we must move forward. Charles Cooper wrote an interesting piece related to this about the future of desktops.

While smart phones can be used to get email and perform some tasks, obviously something larger will be needed for complex tasks such as graphics work. I don't feel that desktop computers as we know them will perish any time soon, but I do see a large decline in their use in the near future. We are already seeing declining desktop sales and increasing laptop and portable internet device sales even with the economy in bad shape. Recently we’ve witnessed the emergence of netbooks to accommodate the people that do not need a full computer. Between smart phones and netbooks, the desktop is getting some serious competition.

In the late 1960's computers took up entire rooms. Large rooms at that. Thirty years later computers with twice the power could sit on your desk. Another ten years and they could sit in your lap. The shape of computers is continually changing. Who’s to say in 20 years they will look anything like they do now. My bet is they won't. Not even close.

As time goes on our technology shapes us, and in turn we shape our technology. To think that our computers will remain as they are would be pure foolishness. To be resistant to such change, however, is only human. I myself grew up typing in a command line. My first experience with computers was my sister’s Tandy TRS-80. She taught me how to program in BASIC. I later got my own IBM compatible PC desktop with an 8088 processor. It loaded MS-DOS 2.11 from a 5 1/4 floppy drive. No GUI or mouse in sight for this bad boy. Later it became evident that the world was moving to GUI based operating systems, but I rejected this idea. I was quite comfortable typing in the command prompt. I deemed it lazy to use a point and click system. Now I cringe when a PC doesn't see the mouse and I have to use the keyboard. I hate having to open a command window to do tasks in Linux. I have become one of those lazy people I used to talk about.

Eventually, human-computer interactions will shift away from mice and keyboards. Alternate ways of interfacing with our devices are already beginning to emerge. Accelerometers and touch screens are already seen in some devices such as Nintendo's Wii and Apple's iPhone. Also Microsoft seems to be working on it as well. More natural ways of interacting with our computers will provide even more competition to the desktop dinosaurs. Imagine picking up a 20 pound desktop and shaking it side to side to flip through your applications. Not a pretty sight.

What direction do you think computer technology will take in the future? Feel free to comment and let me know what you think.

Micheal Stanley began working with computers around the age of 4 when his sister started teaching him to program in BASIC on a Tandy TRS-80. With degrees in electronics, instrumentation, and automated manufacturing, and studies in networking and programming he has a good understanding of all aspects of information technology.

In November of 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Micheal volunteered to help provide IT field support for the FEMA hurricane recovery effort on the gulf coast. One of only three IT field support personnel (sometimes only two) for more than 2000 users spread over five counties on the gulf coast, the urgency of providing network, internet access, and end user support to the recovery team in the storm ravaged area tested and strengthened his IT skills. Recently he has been contemplating writing articles on technology, and has started writing a book.

Micheal's blog can be found at

Topics: CXO, Browser, Hardware, Mobility, Smartphones

Ed Burnette

About Ed Burnette

Ed Burnette is a software industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience as a programmer, author, and speaker. He has written numerous technical articles and books, most recently "Hello, Android: Introducing Google's Mobile Development Platform" from the Pragmatic Programmers.

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  • Its happening but there are legitimate addressable concerns
    • There are many concerns indeed.

      While the trend is deffinately happening, you are very correct that it will not be without it's cons. Also of note is; how will the net neutrality debate end up effecting applications in the cloud? If the service providers get their way eventually, we could end up paying hefty premiums to access our data and applications. Or worse, have our connection speeds throttled back so that it takes hours to get our work done.

      As your source points out, the role of IT will certainly change. The role of the developer will most deffinately change. Lets face it, the entire information technology ecosystem will shift at some point as it has in the past.

      There are plenty of people on both sides of the argument of whether this change is good or not. I'm on the fence on this one. I see it as a good evolution of our technology, and enabling much better flexibility in development. But on the other hand, I'm quite fond of my desktop, and couldn't imagine a world without it. Also at this point, I just don't trust cloud security or avaliablity. Maybe once broadband has fully encompassed the entire country, and cloud computing has proven itself to be as secure and stable as traditional computing, I will be more accepting of it.

      I do see it as a good step in the right direction however. It's been a while since we had a good revolution in how we use computers. We are due.
  • Hopefully sooner than later

    There are lots of reasons for companies to migrate from desktop applications to browser-based applications:

    1. Tools like AJAX and Native Client allow browser apps to run with near desktop performance.

    2. Gears allows applications to be used offline.

    3. Any OS can be used (Windows/Linux/OS X/...).

    4. Any hardware can be used (desktop/notebook/netbook/smartphone/...).

    5. Employees are able to log in and work on any machine.

    6. The hardware is simply swapped out, if a client machine fails.

    • That is only the start really.

      As time moves forward the list of reasons to move towards a web based architecture grows. Even if it doesn't replace the desktop as the means to deliver, I feel it will supplant legacy programming methods. However, shifting to smaller devices is what the industry has had it's eyes on since the first computer was developed. It only makes sense that that trend will continue.
  • Desktops will always have a role

    They provide more power and capability in a cheaper package and they offer ergonomics that are much superior to a laptop.
    • And the earth was flat.

      I agree that right now decktops offer the best bang for buck and can't be replaced for high end needs. But just as room sized super computers were replced by desktops, at some point desktops may become the next supercomputer. Only used by the elite for high end problem solving at NASA, or some laboratory. I think at some point in the future, laptops will be the new desktop, and then netbooks, and later maybe smaller devices. Who knows what the future holds, but I see hints that our technology is on the bring of major chance in the near future.
      • I need something with an expandable display

        ...and a fast input method. So I can carry it with me, but sit down and do some serious work without squinting and pecking when the need arises.

        Hmm... maybe by saying "sit down and do work" I'm clinging to my preconceived notions of how to use computers based on how we use them now.
        Ed Burnette
        • That's another issue. How much screen real-estate can you have on a laptop?

          Once the laptop screen is bigger than 15.4" it's no longer conveniently portable. Yet, plenty of people do work where a 19" or greater sized monitor is more ideal.

          Laptops limit ergonomics and even if you have an external display most can only have one.

          The desktop is going to be around for a very long time.
          • Or....

            "Laptops limit ergonomics and even if you have an external display most can only have one."

            But what if the device docks to provide all those features your acustomed to? Larger screen, printing, massive storage, maybe even the processor links to more processors for scalable power? When the need arises, you lift it from the dock, and now it does something your desktop simply can't. It becomes mobile. It may not be such a bad thing to consider new realms. But humans tend to think in single deminsions and ignore that other possiblities exist.
          • Docks are desktop slots by another name...

            All of which means, as is being discussed above that desktops will still have a place. Perhaps not the dominant one we're used to but they'll still have a place.

            Just try to convince someone needing a large (19" or larger screen for example) that they need to plug into a dock to do design, (serious)video editing, (serious) art on a computer to use a laptop.

            You'll get laughed at and rightly so.

            Just imagine the RSI injuries to people doing data entry on the toy keyboards of almost all laptops. Old chicklet keyboards would cause less damage.

            And the annoying and inaccurate "pointing" device which entails dragging your finger over a tiny little patch.

            The ergonomics of most if not all laptops are horrible to put it mildly.

            There are places for laptops, those who use their computers as appliances to surf, do email, type the odd letter or document (watch the wrists folks!) or those who work in the field with them like salespeople or technicians (like me) who aren't keyboarding all day long.

            (BTW, I carry an extra keyboard and mouse for those inevitable long sessions of troubleshooting which go beyond point and click.)

            [i]What this is is a choice of the right tool for the right job.[/i]

            As prices for both laptops and desktops continue to decline this isn't the prohibitively expensive choice that it used to be.

            And just ask a serious gamer to give up their superpowered desktop with 40" screen and sound that would put a $5000 stereo to shame! ;-)


          • All can be accomplished...

            by placing the device in a dock. Not sure why you think that even in the future, the only way to power a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and other peripherals is through a desktop. A phone could just as easily fit into a dock that has all these features.

            And while they certainly aren't powerful enough to replace a desktop yet, the idea is for the future, where such devices could possibly be more powerful then desktops are today.

            The whole point is to think about the future and what direction our technology should take. We can't continue thinking inside the box forever. At some point, we will have to embrace newer technology that allows us to be more flexible, productive, and mobile.

            As I have said before, I very fond of my desktop. However, I'm also open to the idea of being able to take that power whereever I go. When at home... hook it up to the big screen and let it run full throttle.

            We shouldn't have to be tied down to a desk, or forced to buy two to be mobile as well.
          • Replying to ShadowGIATL on this level

            Since we're maxed out on reply levels...

            A dock *IS A DESKTOP*.

            You can't carry a big monitor, a big keyboard, etc with you. Therefore the big stuff has to sit somewhere--which is conceptually a desk.

            See? :)

            I'm currently working on a 23" monitor with a full-size ergonomic keyboard and a fairly substantial wireless mouse. That means I won't be carrying the monitor/keyboard/mouse with me, so that silly little phone of the future won't do squat for me as a work environment without the dock, right?

            Meaning I have to go where the monitor is, which is the dock, which is the desktop.

            Now, when they find a way to project a nice sharp 20"+ equivalent screen that's readable in all lighting conditions on any given wall, and a folding keyboard that makes no compromises in ergonomics, then we'll talk.

            Till then, long live the desktop!
      • Not all desktops are large.

        There is no law that states that a desktop's case must be x inches high, y inches wide, and z inches deep. All that is required is a box for the components, and connections for monitors, full sized keyboards, and full sized mice.

        In fact, there are already desktops that are smaller than any laptop. This size only exceeded when you add the monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Since people are not getting any smaller, these human interface parts will not get any smaller.
    • Agreed, What Laptop Has Raid Protection?

      In my homebuilt desktops I use a minimum of RAID 1 and in my newest desktop RAID 10. On top of that are external drives that do backups in case the systems "flames".

      Also I don't use the software type of RAID either, rather I use fully Hardware RAID solutions with Battery backup for the write cache.

      I have both a MacBook coming and have pre-ordered the Asus 1000HE Netbook which will promptly be upgraded to XP Pro SP3. These are my first notebooks.

      On top of the above it's kind of hard to accidently forget your desktop somewhere which is what happens to probably 25% of the laptops.
  • Re: Desktops are becoming extinct - Blah Blah Blah

    The talk of extinct desktops are equivalent to what Mark Twain said, "The rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated." and so it is with desktop exstinction. They have made noise on this subject ever since we hit Windows 98. It hasn't happened yet and I doubt it will happen anytime soon.

    The cloud and Web-Based Apps have a place for sure. To say either or both will fully replace the desktop is short sighted. Many things have come and gone already with claims they will replace the desktop and they haven't yet. Many things have come and stayed with claims as well, that they too would replace the desktop. - And yet!... The desktop is still here comfortably co-existing with these other things.

    What we are more likely to see is tighter integration and exquisite voice recognition that will allow us to more fully use a computer as a companion to our work and play rather than be as it is currently, another appliance.
    The Rifleman
    • And it may not disapear completely...

      but I bet in the near future, its use greatly decreases compared to other devices such as laptops and netbooks. So far, laptop sales have been gaining more share and desktops have been losing ground.

      A large portion of people I know only use their computers to surf the web and check email. Some might do their taxes on them. But now that you can even do your taxes in a web browser, (see links below) that doesn't warrant needing a full sized tower. A laptop, or netbook will do the job. A more people buy netbooks their price will likely drop even more, and they will become as common as cell phones have.,,id=118986,00.html
  • Ummmm, probably not

    Yet another premature death announcement from a ZDNet blogger.

    Agreed that desktop OS's are less and less important as time goes by, since every OS can access the web where more and more of your data lives. Sure, netbooks and smart phones work fine for goofing around (facebook, twitter, "texting" your friends) but there will always be people who need a computer to earn a living using CAD, accounting, tax prep, serious writing, and many other activities that are much easier to accomplish with a larger display.

    Dinosaurs are long extinct, but they were the top of the food chain for many millions of years.
    • However...

      "Dinosaurs are long extinct, but they were the top of the food chain for many millions of years."

      in the technology world, dinosaurs tend to refer to devices only 3 or 4 years old.
  • RE: Desktops are becoming extinct

    The BIG issue with cloud computing is privacy/ security. All this other stuff is workable. Your crazy gaming guy can be plugging his laptop into his 60" flat panel tv and stereo system, but ALL data on the web is insecure, period, always.
  • Desktops will not go extinct

    First of all, the gaming, self-building, and tinkering crowd will prefer desktops due to their greater suitability over other computers to modification and upgrade. Laptops, notebooks, tablets would all work fine for a CPU for these users if they were as easy to modify as a 2 cubic foot volume desktop. If CPUs, storage "drives", and video "cards" were all universal plug-ins the size fo postage stamps, and this crowd could still rewire, remove and replace as they can now, they'd hop on board.

    Desktops, AKA stand-alone computers, will also be the systems of choice for users for whom the "cloud" is not a suitable home or business environment. i.e. suburban and rural families with significant connection and power issues; and businesses with the same issues, as well as security, and application and data control and ownership.