The Desktop Conundrum

by Kurt Cagle

What, exactly, constitutes a desktop, and for that matter, what exactly constitutes an operating system? I beg a bit of an indulgence here in order to talk about a couple of cool apps and a couple of very disturbing developments, then would like to come back and reconsider these questions in light of this.

I am writing this particular post in a little Google applet called Google Notebook which is nothing exceptional (basically just a rich-text-edit control with a small piece of back end storage) that's nonetheless quite exceptional in what it implies.


2006-12-26 16:11:58
I found Gutman's article yesterday, and laughed out loud at how badly Microsoft misses the point of the Internet still ... and don't even get me started on the RSS patent!
2006-12-26 19:07:22
you're on crack.
2006-12-26 20:39:28
And the content providers keep taking it up the snoot while the technologists take the money. This bit is funny, Kurt:

"Microsoft hasn't learned its lesson from Google - the power in the web does not derive from those who hold the existing content, but rather derives from the ease by which those who may create new content can do so in a manner that is secure, trustworthy, obvious, and ultimately in the best interests of the new content creators."

That is so but it is so far off the mark from what happens. Ultimately, it is simply the shift of power from owning the software operating system to owning and securing a server farm, so from software to hardware. The only thing it relies on is the willingness of the content authors to submit to the rules and dictates of the server-farm owner. Ask the SL graphics artists about Copybot. So far it hasn't slowed Linden Labs down a bit. Your mythical uprising doesn't happen as long as the power stays on the other side of the pitchfork. Make as much noise as you like; without a means to retaliate, it's just noise and the vaunted 'we'll walk out' just doesn't work without the power of the law behind it. Union busting pretty much did away with that option.

I won't even bother to quote the Who this time.

No way I'm giving up the desktop. Not a chance in hell.


Kurt Cagle
2006-12-26 22:58:29
Well, one vote for crack and one for server farm control.

Not on crack - I have a hard enough time dealing with caffeine - so on to Len ...

I'd differ with you on this one (and I don't differ with most of what you say) though not because I think Google is warm and cuddly (I think the company is still relatively young, but like most large companies the imperative for corporate survival eventually outweighs the mandate to "do good".

However, I think that Google is nowhere near so secure that they can afford to lose the good graces of their customer base. Momentum CAN shift quickly on the web - far more quickly than it does in the brick and mortar world, even in areas such as politics. Microsoft is largely immune to this effect in part because their distribution channel is usually at one remove from the customer - they make very specific deals with the OEM, and that OEM knows that they would be hard pressed to sell any PCs at all if all they offered were Linux boxes (Apple gets away with it by being a lifestyle choice, not a technology choice, and even so Apple computer sales have been sluggish even in the face of high demand for the IPod.

Google exists on quicksand, and they know it. Their firmament is shored up somewhat with useful/helpful apps that can also bind users to their services - gmail, notebook, spreadsheets, et al., but overall there is an implicit agreement there about the relative security and privacy of the data being tied into the agreement to use the service in the first place. What does Google get out of the relationship? It basically becomes the portal of choice for the user, which means that ad revenues will always start from this point whenever the user logs on. Ditto for Gmail.

Admittedly, the monopoly of the server farm is always a possibility, and I think for this reason you need to temper utility with a healthy dollop of paranoia. If I send an email with a manuscript or some other item of value, that manuscript will ultimately end up residing, at least for a time, on a server somewhere. If I am concerned about the trustworthiness of the server, then I put my manuscript on a USB key and send that, and if I am concerned with the trustworthiness of the mail or express service, then I get into a car and drive to the recipient, and hand the key to them directly. I am trading trustworthiness for time and money. I see Google as being trustable for an arbitrary value of trust, just as there are those who see Microsoft in the same light.

The shift to cloud based services is happening now, largely because people have chosen to trust certain entities to handle their data (or are simply ignorant of the process, which to me entails a trust of a different sort). I think that people will likely end up setting up for themselves the balance between what can be safely kept on the cloud and what should be kept closer to the vest - the difference is largely who owns the data clouds.

I WAS oversimplifying things somewhat in the discussion concerning operating systems - the desktop is of course only one program running on top of this OS. Realistically, however, what seems to be emerging is that by abstracting many of the common features of the desktop (through the agency of the browser) companies such as Google or Yahoo or Microsoft are able to function across systems. In many ways, the decision by Microsoft not to create an Internet Explorer for Linux (and to kill support for it on the Mac) may very well prove to be disastrous in the long run, because what this ends up doing is making cross platform browsers such as Opera and Firefox far more attractive in the long run.

Whether I think that storage on Google (or Amazon, or anywhere else) is preferable to that of keeping it on your own drive, I suspect in the long run the advantages of online access (the ease of sharing, or publishing, of replication, of collaboration, and of upgrading) will end up making this migration pretty much inevitable ... for good and bad.

2006-12-27 06:10:40
I'm still holding on to my desktop until they pry it from my cold dead hands. :-)

We agree on the matter of trust. I still don't want to use in-house tools to build 3D worlds. Here I need the performance I get from being local and I don't have broadband. OTOH, I've no problem with using the in-house tools such as this text edit box I'm typing in now for that which once posted, I'm unconcerned. Further if an employer was relying on the cloud, I'd be happy to join the choir there. But the cloud isn't really that; it is a server farm and with those come problems that I won't suffer to risk high value content. I suspect the rising costs for energy and green legislation will begin to impact those businesses soon, and I don't want to be unable to work when the lights on the West Coast go dim because the next Enron decides to make a few dollars more just at the oil companies do.

I think Google is more secure in their position than you do but you are right that any pure services play is more vulnerable to the zeitgeist than an operating systems vendor. MS doesn't have that many worries although some of us keep making up more. I expect Vista to have a rougher take off than XP though. Simply, it comes down to a lot of people not needing a new operating system today. It gets tougher to push them off the old one now that the web offers other options and what they want to do and need to do they can do with what they have. Features fatique sets in.

RE: caffeine. THere is never enough the older I get and the really nice caffeine venue in the local mall was just replaced with YetAnotherStarbucks. That sucks.

Kurt Cagle
2006-12-27 11:48:25

I'm not saying that I think you can get by with a pure server side solution - at this stage that would be suicide - broadband or no broadband. I look upon network access as being another pipe, and one that has far higher latency than any local pipes. You distribute your latencies appropriately.

2006-12-27 22:13:08
I agree with that, but think it all the way through. Why are the tools simple vs complex? Is complexity a side effect of something more important?

The idea that all data lives in the cloud on the net is sort of dumb. The idea that the tools that do best are those that are in-world (in the 3D parlance, in the server-side world illusion) makes sense in the same way a MAC does: close it, keep it simple for the simple people, and control all avenues. Eventually, you control all of the content too. That's the idea for Second Life too and it is successful in the same way Google is and for the same reasons. Ease. On the other hand, security isn't provided and griefers raise hell at will.

The social issues ARE the issues that make the web a hard problem.

The Apple commercials make the PC user look like an overstuffed untalented and ultimately uncool user. The truth is, the PC user is the person who places a high value on their own freedom to control their environment and is willing to be responsible for that. Complexity doesn't faze them because they actually are smarter than the Mac user.

That's why I think where you were headed in that article is wrong. I'll take the cost of the complexity to keep the market open. You are blindly headed down the path where all your data is in the clouds but your head ends up elsewhere unable to see it.

The operating system of the future will make more use of the local disk and peer-to-peer computing. The Google model works for some applications but not all. There we agree.

2006-12-28 07:13:26

That's and example of how Google loses. Note the comment about minimalist platforms. Note also that Anshe Chung took her 3D content business to Wuhan. It isn't about simplicity anymore. The T-model era is passing fast. It is about features and cost: the GM is God era of automotive manufacturing. The impact on that market is energy, the devil in the server farm works.

Sun is replying to that one. It will be interesting to see what has to go to hit the sweet spot.

M. David Peterson
2006-12-30 00:20:58
@len, kurt,

Interesting thread -- plan to extend some comments upon my return tomorrow.

Hope your holidays have been fund :D

M. David Peterson
2006-12-30 00:24:17
uhhh... make that "fun", though fund wouldn't be such a bad thing either ;)
2007-01-02 08:56:54
An OS controls hardware. What is being talked about here is a supplement to Operating Environment. It feels like Plan 9 all over again...