Why desktop computing failed

Traditional desktop computing has failed. It failed partly because we couldn't handle the great power and great responsibility of a full-blown operating system. Help is here and there's an app for that.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

Desktop computing failed because of you and me, the end user. Software manufacturers, as much as we'd love to blame them, are not at fault. They tried to fulfill our every wish and whim but they just couldn't--not with a desktop operating system. With applications, they excel but with desktops not so much. Desktops can't be all things to all people. Apple realized that with its introduction of iOS and its App Store. The local operating system has lost its importance. Traditional desktop computing failed and not a moment too soon.

The desktop computing revolution began with the introduction of Windows 95. It was a new-fangled operating system with a look and feel like something Apple came up with years before. But, for Windows 3.x users, it was new. And, NT 4.0 had that same slick interface that gave users the opportunity to place dozens of icons and shortcuts to their frequently used programs right on the desktop surface.

And, connecting desktop computers to a LAN and the Internet opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Access to information at the speed of Token Ring was awesome. It also opened up a world of viruses, malware, spam and other goodies and baddies that could render a desktop unusable within seconds of opening a tainted email message. As a former desktop support engineer, I can tell you that supporting full-blown desktops is not fun. Nor is it fulfilling. It's a losing battle against malware, poor software, viruses and the ever-tinkering user.

Desktop computing failed because we couldn't handle it. Developers tried desperately to "dumb down" the operating systems on which they worked for the sake of the lowly user but couldn't make the operating system dumb enough. Software is complex. Making it simple for the user is even more difficult and adds another factor of complexity to the developer's work. And, the more complex something is, the easier it is to destroy via viruses, inadvertent actions and your neighbor the computer "expert's" expertise.

Even Apple's extremely dumbed-down operating system failed. OS2 failed. Windows failed. Linux failed.

The successor to the fat and stupid operating system is not virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). VDI is a poorly conceived idea that moves the desktop from your local system to a remote one. It's still fat. It's still stupid. And, it still breaks at the speed of virtual Ethernet. The answer, my friend, is in lightweight operating systemlets such as iOS, ChromeOS, Windows Mobile, MeeGo, Android, and WebOS.

Applications, not the OS, is where it's at. Who cares to interact with the operating system for anything other than to run applications? I do but I'm a computer guy. But, if there's an app for that, I want to use it. I can't think of any reason whatsoever, under normal circumstances, for ordinary users to interact with the operating system. Sure, some of us techie-types like to mess with the OS but for most people, it's just not a need. I've never found it limiting in any way that I can't* get under the surface of iOS 4.x on my iPad. It hasn't bothered me or limited my ability to work at all.

If I feel the need to tinker, I can use a Linux system or if I really want to tear things to bits, I can open a connection to a Windows system.

And, that statement alone is very telling. Desktop computing fails, in part, because the operating system is so easy to corrupt, even for an ordinary user. That should not be the case.

Perhaps it failed too because of human nature. That innate need to disassemble, to analyze, to break and to seek what's underneath the pretty icons and floating mouse cursor. Computers are objects of affection and affliction. It seems perfectly OK to tinker, twist, adjust, torture and twiddle with a computer. Try those same activities with your automobile, coffee maker or wristwatch. You probably won't do that for fear of the consequences but you will with your computer.

Desktop computing failed. It's your fault. It's my fault.

And, the solution is to make an operating system as lightweight and as unobtrusive as possible. Move the working parts to the background and feature the applications--where the real work takes place. But, for the tinkerers among you, opportunities to jailbreak, to explore and to boldly go will always exist.

* I could but I want to maintain the warranty. Plus, it was too expensive to break into for no reason.

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