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
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
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?