2011: The year personal computing will reinvent itself

The dominant desktop paradigm will finally wither and a thousand new personal computing models will bloom

Everyone knows the Windows desktop monolith is breaking into pieces. Yes, Microsoft is still making money, mainly from the big rollover to Windows 7 -- but where does Redmond go from here? And which alternatives are truly viable?

This is the year when we'll start to find out. New, overlapping client computing paradigms are popping up all over the place. The overriding theme -- even from Microsoft -- is that whatever personal computing device you use, desktop or mobile, serves only as a temporary access point for data, preferences, and applications. The permanent home for your computing life, to the degree that it exists, will be on a server in the cloud or in your own data center.

[ For more wild speculation, see Galen Gruman's "How mobile will kill off Microsoft Office." | Here's what it feels like to live in the Chrome OS. | The InfoWorld Test Center's review of new VDI solutions concludes that desktop virtualization may not be as hard as you think. ]

None of this means that the trusty old laptop and desktop PC are going away. Mainframes and minicomputers haven't disappeared, either. But I can't recall a time, including the dawn of the PC era, when no fewer than four operating systems -- Android, Chrome OS, iOS, and Ubuntu Linux -- all emerged as viable contenders for some substantial portion of personal computing at around the same time. Talk about tipping points.

How is the immediate future of personal computing shaping up? Here's the 20,000-foot view.

Microsoft's hybrid cloud

With the advent of Office 365 and Steve Ballmer's announcement of a massive shift to cloud development, Microsoft finally clued us in on its basic plan for the future: a gradual move to Microsoft-hosted services in the cloud. Office 365 leaves Office on the desktop but moves Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync (formerly Communications Server) to Microsoft's huge new data centers built to deliver cloud services. You pay one per-user subscription rate for the whole hybrid desktop/cloud deal.

It's unclear exactly where this leads. There's nothing wrong with beefy Windows desktops for those who need them, but there's also increasing recognition that the full cost of Windows and Office -- plus the endless endpoint security, maintenance, and upgrade overhead -- doesn't make sense for entire organizations. Yes, Office 365 comes in a version without desktop Office, so light-duty users can run Office Web Apps only, but the price is high. And Office 365's support for mobile devices is weak -- as is Microsoft's preferred mobile solution, Windows Phone 7, at least for business purposes. When Office 365 comes out of beta this year, more may be revealed.

Google's total cloud

Chrome OS was released in beta late last year to largely lukewarm reviews. After all, it's basically a browser -- or more accurately, the Chrome browser as a shell for a Linux kernel intended to run on low-cost Web appliances. For productivity software, you use the browser-based Google Docs, Zoho, or one of several other alternatives. You are truly living in the cloud. That's great from one standpoint: If your Chrome OS device is smashed to bits, your data is safe in the stratosphere. But without some offline capability, the Chrome OS solution is not practical.

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