Linux Takes the Desktop!?

Okay, a slight exaggeration; but the announcement this last Thursday that Google Android [a Linux variant] has won the top spot among smartphone OS may be a precursor of what is to come. This Fall, a wave of Android  slates, netbooks, pads and tablets are going to arrive on the scene – and change the balance of power on the desktop. Linux through Android becomes not the marginal 1-2% desktop client player but more like a 5-9% player and growing. And the fundamental reasons that the Android version of Linux will do well is because it will deliver 4 things that Microsoft  has failed to deliver:
1)a multi-touch user interface which like Web 2.0 is revolutionizing computer interaction as users demand much better user-computer interactions. UIs must now be simple, intuitive, easy to to learn and remember how to use. Gone except in Brobadingnangian apps are the huge 3-5 level deep menus and Mayan glyph-like icon-bars that demand big learning curves, slight hope for most mortals of knowing  a fraction of an apps feature set, and/or demanding large swaths of “getting reacquainted” time.
2)a UI housed in a light, bright, and highly mobile form factor.
Long battery life and easy to carry, and connected to the Web, other devices, and a broad set of peripherals by high performance connections including Bluetooth, Wifi, USB 3.0 etc.
3)a desktop UI that is open source. You don’t like the pace or direction that Google is taking Android Linux in – then fork it. Or add your own extensions, development software, and/or performance, security, and/or reliability fixes. As  major users, hardware providers, corporate sponsors now know [a broad variety of stakeholders in Android], they have much more self-control over the direction and utility that Android provides them then has ever been possible with Microsoft Windows. The biggest advantage – stakeholders have access to the Android source code.
4)a desktop OS that is NOT constantly growing in price, size and becoming ever slower/less reliable. Microsoft used to announce with pride that “Windows is 50 million lines of code and growing”. No more as the sheer size of the code has made it impossible for Microsoft to carry its core Windows code into mobile and tablet markets quickly. For example Redmond has had to resurrect Windows XP for netbooks because Vista and a severely stripped down Windows 7 just don’t fit. Also problems like .DLL hell, persistent memory leaks, a constant supply of zero day hacks and gradual degradation over usage in a day forcing reboot persist as wicked problems which are very hard for Microsoft to fix.

In short, instead of constantly following Windows as the various Linux versions have done in the past, Android represents Linux in a leadership role – well ahead of Microsoft Windows in the current development curve. But this does not guarantee anything– hence the question mark in the title.

First and foremost, Android is not a full desktop OS. Although it is being fitted into tablets, pads and netbooks, Android has not the full range of peripheral connections, development languages and tools that one would expect using Mac, Windows or full Linux. Also Google is targeting Chrome OS as the larger device OS. But even Chrome OS has a Cloud Client orientation with the Chrome browser being the primary application interface. Finally, running native Android apps relies a lot on Google’s Dalvik VM which does not have the performance pedigree and feature reach of C/C++, Java and other traditional developers tools. So Android may have a substantial lead but for a narrower market than the traditional desktop. A lot depends on how many light, mobile pads and tablets are adopted in the corporate workspace. Will there emerge a dockable Android [or iPad or Windows Mobile], that can deliver solid business day usage but which can be readily uncoupled for meetings or after-hours use ?

The second factor is that Windows is a formidable presence. Windows has an even greater number of apps than Apple’s popular iPhone by an order of magnitude. This alone will keep users from migrating away from Windows. Second, many of the creative apps like Photoshop, AutoCad, SPSS, BI Systems, and literally tens of thousands of others simply will not fit onto Android Tablets because of the cited programming deficit plus the memory+disk+keyboard+mouse form factor that still drives much PC usage. Third, Microsoft has finally reacted to the Apple iPone+Google Android surge and has two new UI systems in development: Windows Phone 7 and the Kinect Xbox/game interface [game interface design often leads standrd interfaces by 3-7 years]. So Microsoft is not out of the UI woods; but neither is it out of the UI game.

Finally, to Microsoft’s benefit and Android’s disadvantage, corporate IT shops worldwide have become very conservative as well as Microsoft admin software dependent as they wrestle with the 80-20 rules – 80% of their budgets are spent just making the existing operations work, only 20% [and declining] is available to meet new market and user demands. The other 80-20 problem ? 80% of users know 20% or less of the IT shop tools and features available to them. Will Android or Chrome OS be able to supply apps that will draw corporate users to them better than the PC mobile space – think laptops and desktops with up to 2-6CPU chips, 6-12GB RAM, 256-500GB of ultrafast SSD disk , ultrafast dedicated GPUs and connectors to anything?

Regardless of the exact evolution of the PC versus mobile tablet markets, Takethe5th takes it cue from the browser market place. For the past 5 years plus, Microsoft’s IE browsers have been the worst by far in features, standards support and performance; yet IE6 [the performance pits and security dregs of browsing] continues to hold 17% market share and all the IE browsers still hold 52% of the browser marketplace. Inertia rules the medium term trends in IT. So Android Linux has been and will continue to be an outstanding success in the consumer computing marketplace. It will steal market share from traditional Windows and Mac desktop PCs, laptops and mobile devices. But also it will likely have to coexist with them for many years to come. This “coexistence” should be most interesting.
P.S. Apple is in the same position with iOS4 as Google Android less three crucial factors – 1)it is not open source and 2)it has a closed development environ [as Adobe Flash and Sun’s Java among others have learned to their misfortune] and 3)it has  Apple dominated and controlled deployment  environ [breaking up a bit as a court has ruled that users can add their own developed apps].

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