If Windows is a dead end, what's next?

Windows 7 looks like lipstick on the Vista pig. Maybe it's time to contemplate the PC after Windows

The writing is on the wall. Despite a major push to sell the much-maligned Windows Vista, customers aren't buying. Nearly two years after Vista's release, Windows XP remains the standard desktop OS in business, and Microsoft has extended its availability three times (currently to August 2009) due to customer demand. Microsoft itself forecasts just 2 percent growth in Vista sales in early 2009, after lackluster sales in 2008. And that's after forcing customers to buy Vista to get XP "downgrades."

So all eyes were on Microsoft's Professional Developer Conference in Los Angeles last week as Microsoft finally took the wrap off Windows 7, the successor to Vista due in early 2010.

But early reaction is that Windows 7 is just a cleaned-up Vista. It's essentially the same kernel and the same OS, with a couple new technologies thrown in, such as the Surface-based multitouch capabilities and the ability for developers to ribbon-bar-enable their own apps for better consistency with Microsoft's new UI approach (one that people either seem to love or hate). "It's not anything radical," says Neil MacDonald, a Gartner analyst who follows Microsoft. "It's a polished version of Vista."

If Windows 7 is more of the same, then maybe it's time to conclude that Windows is a technology dead end. Last spring, Gartner warned that Microsoft had to radically change Windows or watch it fade into irrelevancy. Windows 7 is not that radical change.

A glimpse at the future of the PC

So what comes after Windows? Already, there are signs of what that might be. Cloud-based delivery of services makes the browser, not the OS, the "kernel" of tomorrow's PC. Rich Internet application (RIA) technology gives those services the richness that the first generation of the Web could not even contemplate, despite early attempts with Sun's Java and Microsoft's ActiveX. Virtualization lets you mix OSes together, as VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop have proven admirably on Mac OS X. The emergence of desktop virtualization and application streaming allows for even richer apps to be delivered without the weight of a fat OS on the client side.

Put these together, and you can see the future of the PC, says MacDonald. The client OS -- Windows, Mac OS X, Linux -- becomes irrelevant over time. Instead, the browser evolves into a thin client that lets PCs run services that stream from the datacenter or run in the cloud. The new breed of apps would be services that run through technologies such as Adobe's Flash and AIR or Microsoft's Silverlight -- it's no accident that both sets of technologies run on any browser and on the main three OSes of today (Windows, Mac OS, and Linux).

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