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Editor's Note: Desktop, Schmesktop

Mar 12, 2004, 23:30 (22 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

This week, thanks to the nature of an entropic universe, both of the laptops in my house are in the shop.

It has nothing to do with the operating systems on the machines: the ThinkPad has a bad inverter card and the iBook has been struck down by a bad logic board which Apple has graciously offered to fix as part of a recall.

It isn't the end of the world, of course--there's still a few desktop boxes running about my house that I am not completely cut off from technology--but there is a noted change in my daily activities in not being able to get online from any where in the house, or work anywhere in the city.

The enforced change has led me to examine my own computer preferences and reflect on just what the heck I need with all of these computers. And, while I was basking in the light of self-examination, a funny little thought popped into my head: what do any of us need with a home computer?

This was point A. Here is point B:

Linux on the desktop--indeed, anything on the desktop--may soon be a very moot point.

I got from point A to point B with a leap of intuitive thinking, which I will step through here. One thing I should note: when I use desktop in this conversation, I am referring to the home PC platform.

As more and more home users are buying computers, they take them home, unwrap all the Styrofoam and bubble-wrap, plug them into the power and the phone jacks, and use all that processing power to (a) better mankind, (b) better themselves, or (c) download video clips of Janet Jackson. In a world where people take things more seriously, it might be option (a) or (b), but it is more likely that it will be something along the lines of option (c).

The home PC market really took off, in my opinion, when people wanted to get computers at home that matched the capabilities of computers they had at the office or their kids had at school. Parents wanted their kids to have access to the Internet for researching school work; kids wanted to play games. People wanted to finish that big report for the office at home; they ended up surfing eBay. That sort of thing.

PCs, which were meant to be tools of discovery and assistance, are also being used as entertainment devices. This is no big secret. What might be a big secret is the fact in the very near future, that's all a home PC might be used for in most of the homes that have them.

Don't get me wrong; there will still be the student who needs to research, and an office worker that has to finish that big report. But the overwhelming need to have a PC in the home is going to be for personal entertainment. A central storage/control system for digital cameras, digital video, and digital music.

The TiVO is a good example of how a PC can be modified to be pure entertainment. After all, it's basically a sleek Linux case with a big hard drive. No keyboard, no monitor (save the TV itself), but these nifty devices are only one step away from the PC on the technological evolutionary chain.

Let's stay with the TiVO just a few more moments: knowing that it runs with Linux, what desktop environment or window manager does it use? (Knowing the technical prowess of my readers, this is likely not a rhetorical question; somebody smarter than I has the answer.) But for the average TiVO user, they won't know and they won't care.

As we see more of this convergence occuring, the PC will become more and more like a TiVO entertainment device. It will have the tools that people need, and little more. If they want more tools, they can download them from a central service. The Internet will be accessed just as easily as C-SPAN or the latest Norah Jones album. And the interface will no longer be the story.

If this convergence does take place, will that spell the end of the desktop environments? Hardly. The business world will still need interfaces that are designed for work, as well as the home users who need a work tool more than a play device. But as more and more homes come online (a predicted 76.5 million US homes by the end of 2004, according to Jupiter Research), many of these homes may be using devices other than a PC to do so.

And I think that's what's got Microsoft so worried about Linux. They were never this worried about the Mac or OS/2--because they knew that on a PC platform, neither Apple or IBM had the goods or the install base to seriously challange them. But Linux is a different story. It can run on far more than a PC. If this planned convergence happens, then Microsoft will find its home PC market seriously challanged by an operating system that can live and work quite happily on other platforms.

Can Linux take on Windows on the PC? Maybe, maybe not. But Microsoft's fear is that Linux won't have to. Linux can quickly and quietly bypass the entire home PC market by existing on machines that will perform all the desired tasks of a PC and nothing else. Their fears may have already come true, given that embedded Linux is the number one embedded OS on the planet right now.

So, when someone asks me if Linux ever succeed on the home desktop, I will answer "no." Because I don't believe the home desktop will be around in its present form much longer.

The question may eventually become: will Linux become the dominant home platform?

And the answer will be ohhhh, yes.