The Lord taketh and giveth away...even for Steve Jobs

As the Mac finally gets its long-awaited chance to go head-to-head with Windows, could Bill G. actually be far ahead in the innovation game?

Could the hardware, operating system and desktop model of computing be finished?

As usually happens in the accelerating and madcap world of technology, while there’s one giant publicly feted leap forward for mankind, something else occurs that is going to make the big deal almost irrelevant. Could Bill G. actually be far ahead in the innovation game?Such is the case today in the world of personal computing, and it looks like Apple may be most at risk.

First, the Big Deal.  Here comes the announcement that the new dual core Macs have been hacked to run Windows XP .  If true—and as of now it hasn’t been confirmed, but can anyone believe it won’t happen?—it is a day many of us have been awaiting for years.  This will finally provide a head to head competition between the world’s two leading computer operating systems, a level playing field, and a chance for consumers to select whichever one they need based on what they need to do.  Mac vs. Windows, the Hatfields vs. the McCoys, the Yankees vs. the Red Sox—what could be more American than a show down on the playing field of commerce?

At first glance, this is probably good for Apple, since it can sell machines into places where the ability to run Windows was a requirement.  And it is good for Microsoft, since it means all those Macintosh users are potential buyers for XP.  It has to be terrible news for Dell, and HP, and Lenovo, and Gateway and every other seller of single operating system machines—now the only reason to buy a gizmo that is hobbled with a single operating system, is lower-cost, so pricing is going to get brutal.  Call it Steve’s revenge…brought to you by your neighborhood hackers.

But now for the irony.  On the day that the big gorillas of desktop software are finally wheeling into direct battle, they are increasingly irrelevant.  Operating systems created by big monolithic companies, designed to take advantage of particular chips and hardware add-ons, are so…last century.  The game is about to change and all bets are off.

The much bigger story that is only just starting to emerge is the appearance of browser based desktop computing environments which have the potential to disrupt all of the usual suspects in the old fashioned personal computing world.  Its edges are visible in a product that Walt Mossberg reviewed in the Wall Street Journal today: Glide Effortless from Transmedia .  This is one of the first “Internet” operating systems, a browser based working and computing environment.  (Google’s Desktop was another step in this direction.)  While this particular product is a bit rough around the edges, and sports an interface paradigm that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it demonstrates the first new competition for Apple and Microsoft since Digital Research’s GEM (a Mac like graphical user interface for the IBM PC) was threatened with legal retribution by the Cupertino Crazies (at the behest of the Bellevue Bullies) in the mid-1980s.

What these products are going to require to succeed is a persistent, and dependable, broadband connection, and some dedicated programming work.  I’d predict it won’t be long before there are many more of these desktop environments, and in this world Windows won’t have an instant monopoly so all bets are off as to the ultimate victor.  This is the next logical extension of the world of online applications that fellow ZDNetter Phil Wainwright discusses in his blog when discussing Software as a Service (SaaS), was probably a big part of the Writely acquisition by Google, is implicit in Amazon’s release of S3 an online massive data storage service, and cements the ideas behind Salesforce.com among others.

To take this to its conclusion, who needs an expensive operating system when you can get your desktop anywhere you can make a connection and store all your files on a massive online data storage service?  Could this mean that a Linux machine, capable of nothing more than booting up and displaying a browser, is the computing device of the near future?  All the complexity that you need would come at you through your Internet connection.

The bigger irony?  Microsoft has already started to work feverishly in this direction with Live! In some ways as a software only company it is well-suited to embracing, and perhaps even winning, in this brave new world.   Apple, with a big need to sell hardware to generate profits, has demonstrated little that indicates it has begun to craft its graphical user interface as an Internet delivered service, which would probably be a strong contender for the hearts and minds of many users. 

As the Mac finally gets its long-awaited chance to go head-to-head with Windows, could Bill G. actually be far ahead in the innovation game?