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The Desktop is Dead (or at least terminally ill)

Posted by johnreynolds on March 3, 2009 at 6:02 AM PST

Chris Adamson recently questioned the value of Swing 2 and I have to go one further... Isn't it time to admit that the Desktop is dead?

I think that it's pretty clear that GWT points to the future and "Swing 2" clings to the past. Marc Andreessen was a bit premature when he said something like "The Browser is the Operating System" back in the 90's, but it's clear that his prediction is coming to pass... Take a look at Chrome's features for a hint of what's just around the corner.

With Browser Applications like ThinkFree, Zoho and Google Docs getting better all the time, and with SmartPhones (with better Browsers) and NetBooks becoming pervasive it's best to not waste any more time on the Desktop paradigm.


All -

The responses to this post are almost unanimous. Those of you who left your comments are a pretty passionate lot...

Responses seem to make two major points-

  1. Desktop Apps are and will always be "richer" than Browser Apps
  2. Browser Apps make things too easy for Big Brother to spy on you

Thanks to everyone who responded... One commenter asked "What was the point of this entry?"

Your comments are the point of this entry. I love it when you state your positions, justify your positions, and offer your own opinions. It's much more fun (and productive) than sitting back and assuming that everyone agrees with you.

As for the fate of the Desktop... We'll find out ;-)

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It follows that there's room for both.

I will always have the need for a desktop computer, meaning I will always have the need for a desktop. It's not a matter of it being dead, or terminally ill as you state, it's a matter of my needs as an end user of the device that I'm currently using, and my need for anonymity and privacy, and my bigger need to not have my ideas stolen out from under me from some cloud hacker.

Kraigspear, There are certainly some very neat toys for the iPhone... but I'm betting that the "real" applications will eventually be targeted at mobile browsers - such as Mozilla's new Fennec. Look at today's Desktop Browsers versus those that were available early on - they were lousy platforms for sophisticated applications. I think we will see the same sort of evolution with the mobile browsers. The coolest thing the mobile platform is going to bring to browsers is likely to be the pervasive ability to know the geographical location of the user. Virtually all phones have this, so it's natural to assume that mobile browser APIs will provide that information to your applications. It will be fun to see what happens. -JohnR

I find interesting that Smart Phones are an example of why we need to 'not waste time on desktop apps' Originally the iPhone was only going to support web based apps. This was too limiting and thus the biggest success in app development in recent years is the app store, selling native apps for the iPhone. So maybe not the best example to prove your point.

Funny post - Think about someone who tells you: "Isn't it time to admit that the Jigsaw is dead? I think that it's pretty clear that Screwdriver points to the future". What programming languages or frameworks you should use depends on the goal you have! More funny: In my opinion GWT apps are Desktop applications! It's just another language (Javascript at runtime). It simply depends on your the kind of application you're building if GWT is the best choice. I won't program my firing or washing machine with GWT/Javascript (and most likely also not with Java ;-)

@johnreynolds My personal machine didn't crash since a long time. But to secure my data I simply use a backup mechanism. You don't need a server managed by someone you don't know. Time Machine from Apple is pretty nice but there are many others for other desktop systems A SSH connection to a dedicated server to do the taxes online should be relatively safe. I did not mean that. But the amount of accumulated private data people store for example at Google makes me shudder. I think thats one of the (many) problems the oh so progressive internet society has not realized yet. Think of it. I hope I am not kidding myself when I think the data on my laptop are safe. I have good passwords and encryption of the disk in case I loose my laptop. I exchange data from computer to computer only behind a firewall. And for emails concerning things that I think are private I use PGP. Why do you think it is a false sense of security? A french magazine some weeks ago wrote an article of 2 pages about a guy picked by chance. They described the name, hobbies, with whom he spend the last holidays and so on... Just to demonstrate the information "striptease" of modern people. They did not even use anything illegal to get that information. The guy heard about the newspaper article from friends and was shocked. He tried to sue the magazine but there was nothing wrong. I think people simply don't realize what they do when they deposit emails photos and documents on servers of companies that make a living in selling information. The only reason for those web applications (beside shopping apps or other catalogues) is that the currently mainly used operating systems are so complicated to manage. I think Apples App Store is the direction application management goes. Of course its a completely closed thing, but use it and think about it. Accordingly Java Web Start is the technology that needs to be refined for Java. And its funny to own a computer and tweak it for your personal belongings. I like that. My laptop is my most personal gadget.

>Webapps are available to me from most of these computers, and I >couldn't function without them. So what do you do when you cant get to them, either they're offline or you've got networking problems. Living in a semi-rural part of the UK I'll often find connectivity if generally slow, slower still to the majority if US hosted apps.. What if they suffer a hack attack or suffer a major data loss like mag.nolia, or just closed down to financial climate / shift in priorities (google notebooks). If you depend on such things, what comeback is there when they're not available, most online apps just say 'use at your own risk' in the t&cs or claim a constant 'beta' status. You'd want some legal liabilities if everything failed. Last time I had ADSL problems it took months to get the sorted out and get back online, just as well I didnt depend on the internet for anything critical.

"I have nothing that I really care about on any of my personal machines because they tend to crash" This is the keyword. "Cloud" have it's clients, desktop have it's. You (or someone from your family) will need some desktop any way, and desktop users will need web any way. Yes, I am afraid of my data to, and I have external HDD stored in other room to backup my most valuable data, and I white everything on DVD and store it at girlfriends home because of possible destruction of all my house. Of course after switching to linux I am less paranoid, and storing my data with root owner and withour write permissions. There are some technical reasons for this to. Browser and os wars around us, someone will try to support all browsers and os, someone will take one side and you will have to install two-three browsers just to work with all your favourite apps. In better world all browsers will be closer to perfect, and if computer will be just some browser/terminal with only one manufacturer - it will be monopoly, almost stopping farther computer evolution. PS: think about artists of all kinds. Some novel writer will hardly put all his work to the cloud because it will cost him too much of his life to lose it. May be there is some photographer who works with naked models, and next day all his work might appear in some p2p network because of curiosity of service administrator. No, it costs too much. "Cloud" is useful mostly for "road warriors" and chatters, and with so much users around - I don't beleive they will get more than 50%.

aehrenr - We're just very different people. I bank online. I do my taxes online. I store my pictures online. I keep my calendar online. I fill out my time cards and expenses online. I pay my bills online. All interactions that I do with my insurance company are online. Interactions with my broker are online. My health records are online. I have nothing that I really care about on any of my personal machines because they tend to crash... Storing my stuff on a server that someone else maintains protects my data more than having it in my house... I care more about that than prying eyes. Most of the computers that I use don't belong to me. I use a company issued laptop when on the road and public machines all over the world... Webapps are available to me from most of these computers, and I couldn't function without them. Frankly, I think you're kidding yourself if you think the data on your personal disks is somehow private. It came from somewhere, and you probably share it with someone - While it's in transit those prying eyes can get it. But if it makes you feel better I guess that's fine - but it's probably a false sense of security. -JohnR

@JohnR "Well - as a matter of fact I do. I use Gmail." Google the spy we love :-) I don't use these "services". But colleagues told me that Google advertising is suiting to the contents of the emails. Is that right? If yes it would underscore what I want to say. Imagine what Google, as a single example, not mentioning those social network sites, knows about you: Whom do you exchange emails with, what are you talking with these persons... If you use an Android cellular phone they even know where you are right now. In a state under the rule of law the police would need to have the permission of an independent custodial judge to get this kind of information you give to Google for free. Information about persons is very precious. You talked with a friend about the health problems you or someone you know has. Hope you all have fixed your health insurances already. You get the idea? And if you feel someday uncomfortable about the personal informations you gave away on all these servers? How to delete it? The internet never forgets. I would rather use my laptop and my personal disks to manage my information not some "server" somewhere!

aglasgow - Good points - but remember that a security breach is _really_ bad when you're a Hosting company. A security breach will certainly hurt the Hosting company's clients - but it will probably put the Hosting company out of business. They've got a huge incentive to protect your data. -JohnR

"... but I have to tell you that many Fortune 500 companies are doing just that." Mine is not, and will not, be using a third party to host any information that would be valuable to a competitor. I'm hard pressed to believe that other Fortune 500 companies would be either. One security breach, and it would have been the same as giving out your password, a combination or key, whatever to some "unscrupulous" individual(s).

aglasgow - "No company is going to store trade secrets or confidential data on a bank of servers that they do not own and control." I would have agreed with you five years ago... but I have to tell you that many Fortune 500 companies are doing just that. I don't really know what changed, but I suspect that it's a generational thing - younger CIOs and CTOs taking control... It starts small with stuff like and email, and just keeps going. -JohnR

No company is going to store trade secrets or confidential data on a bank of servers that they do not own and control. For other, non-sensitive applications, I can see a general shift towards using a third party cloud computing for sure. I have to agree that the line between native desktop applications and web-based client/server applications will continue to blur as new technology is adopted.

aehrenr - "You would really store your personal data like your emails" Well - as a matter of fact I do. I use Gmail. -JohnR

Laird, You got me there. -JohnR

Hi, John; please show me an AJAX application where all of the following are true at once: * The back button works reliably. * F5 and/or CTRL-R and/or Shift-F5 don't lose your application state. * It is possible to navigate through the entire application with the keyboard regardless of what browser the user is using. * Right-clicking for a context menu displays something useful in all areas, or, when there's nothing to display, displays nothing. * Text that should be selectable is selected when I drag my mouse across it, and text that should not be selectable is not included in my selection. * The application functions in a benevolently crippled manner when there is no network access. I would like to see such an application so I can learn from it, since I personally know of no way to accomplish this by using anything other than native or VM-based technologies (like Java). Thanks, Laird

@johnreynolds "I understand your ownership concerns, but why not own your own server"? You mean that all people that now work on their laptop should then set up and manage a server and their laptop. Are you serious? And when the network/server is slow they gonna use a typewriter again? No. Simply management of applications installed on your computer will evolve. The app store fore the iPhone is a good hint where the journey goes. I think Java Web Start that has to improve. Thats important. Not some Flex imitation with declarative syntax.

Are you credulous? You would really store your personal data like your emails, letters, spreadsheets and photos on some server somewhere. You'll never know who reads them and when the server will be hacked. You'll never know how your personal data will be screened, indexed and sold to other parties. And then there is the thing with the network/server that is down. The reason the personal computer had its success was that people become independent from the servers. So you could do something, when the admins are busy fixing the network/server. Network application are good for some shallow work like shopping or social networks (but I would never give any kind of personal data away). But everything else is for desktop apps. Look at the iPhone. When S. Jobs heralded that the way of programming for the iPhone is via web-apps there was a storm of indignation. There should be an API for applications opened!!! Then Apple introduced Cocoa touch. Now there are more than 20,000 applications for the iPhone. No, web applications are a relapse to the dumb terminal times. And with the invention of the personal computer people opted in the opposite direction. The problem are just the operating systems. They are too complicate to manage. There is the room for improvement and innovation. Its no solution to use yesterdays paradigms that already failed.

mthornton - Fair enough - but in the interim architect your applications as if they were client/server, running them on your "network in a box". That way you'll be ready when broadband access improves. -JohnR

The affordable infrastructure to accomodate users who originate large quantities of data isn't there yet (and with the UK targetting a minimum of a mere 2Mb/s broadband access) may be some way in the future. So I think there are many years left in the desktop.

aekold - I understand your ownership concerns, but why not own your own "server"? -JohnR

John, I do agree that in SOME cases it is much better to use browser apps. And question is not in career or something, being software developer I am software user in first place. I like to be "at home". I like to configure my dekstop to use MY fonts and color schemes. When I am using my linux desktop I have visual desktop integrity, and I like it. While it is hard enough to make all of webapps look in MY way. I admire KDE team to let me configure that much of my dekstop. Also, I have 4-5 mailboxes, and I don't want all of them to redirect to one heap. Desktop application allows me to check all of them with 1 button, sorting and filtering to different folders. It helps you, it saves your time. You don't have to watch all that commercials your provider wants you to watch. And the last one, service providers does not owe you. Once there possible climate cataclysm or terror act or just someone will put wrong cable in wrong place and all you have can be lost. What is the cost of your mailbox? Your photo albums? For me it costs all my life - there will be no other THIS photo and no other THIS mail. Someday may be world will be closer to perfect and I'll admit at once that desktop is dead. The question is not about paradigm or computer resources or business. The question is about privacy. While the stuff is mine and it's stored on my HDD with copies on DVD disks - I can feel it's mine and I have my right to maim and burn anyone who will touch my privacy, but as soon as you will give your privacy to cloud... You will have rights to manage it, but you will not control it as your own stuff.

John what exactly was the point of your post? I ate cereal for breakfast but I don't feel the need to write a blog about it. I think that what you wrote does not have any intellectual value. Nobody cares if you like to use the word 'paradigm' as much as you can, and shoot darts at your desktop. I am glad that you realise the world has changed from the 80's. For the rest of us, please post something a 5 year old doesn't know.

I think classifying this as a Human/Computer interaction is an over simplification. Driving a modern car is largely an act of Human/Computer interaction, however the basic interface hasn’t really changed conceptually that much from the mechanical systems that the drive by wire systems have replaced. Anyway. Browser oriented systems are great for utilizing what someone else has created in the cloud, however I would argue that they don’t lend themselves well to developing for the cloud. Even if you are using a browser to develop on the cloud, you are simply using a meta-interface to a desktop somewhere else. While the desktop interaction is interaction on a single system, desktops are not typically islands of isolation. Instead they are symbiotic access points to the cloud, where they combine the best points of local creative control and ownership, with the connectivity of the web. If anything, I see both the browser and the desktop becoming more integrated and the line between desktop and browser blurring to the point that most people don’t really care.

Do they _really_ serve different purposes? I think not... It's all just Human/Computer interaction... The 'Desktop" model is interaction with a single entity - The "Browser" or "Cloud" model is interaction with a rich collection of entities... which seems to be the future. "Desktop" seems like richer user experience... but it's losing that edge rapidly. I can say honestly that the browser applications that I see today meet or exceed the user experience of the Windows applications that we were building back in the 90s - and they just keep getting better. Look around - We've already seen consumer-oriented computers whose only interface is a browser. It's true that these haven't been great commercial successes (yet), but browsers are getting better too. It's only a matter of time.

My money's on the fact they serve different purposes.

It's called evolution - As our computing platforms look less and less like a PC the "Desktop" paradigm will look less and less like the "Desktop" paradigm to the point where it's a totally new species. It's a race - will Browser apps evolve fast enough to destroy Desktop apps, or will Desktop apps evolve fast enough to destroy Browser apps? My money's on the Browser apps.

Every tool has a purpose and place. We are now at the point that exploring the cloud paradigm is both practical and interesting. I very sincerely doubt that the desktop will ever go away, or that it will every truly die. It may change, becoming more tightly woven with the cloud.

The "Desktop" paradigm was born with the PC - Prior to that you had the "Terminal" paradigm... starting with the "Dumb Terminal" and evolving to "Smart Terminals". The "Terminal" paradigm recognized that the UI was clearly distinct from the server. The "Desktop" (aka PC) paradigm is an amalgam where there isn't a clear distinction between client and server (they are one in the same). In many ways the "Browser" paradigm is just a return to sanity. Whether you are using Dynamic HTML, AJAX, Applets, Flex, AIR or whatever you choose - Your mental model is not of a stand-alone box. Desktop (as a paradigm) is dead. If you write your applications with the mental image of a PC rather than the mental model of a cloud then you've trapped yourself in a bygone age.

I'm right now at a customer (large industry in the automated control field) and we're developing a somewhat complex UI for a plant (cannot give more details). The application is asynchronous, must show a large deal of information in different formats and be highly interactive. The obvious solution has been an applet (and it looks so good... to bad I can't disclose screenshots), AJAX has been considered at the beginning, but discarded almost immediately. So far the thing is that AJAX wins if you target a casual user with a moderately simple application, like the (personal comment: completely useless) social engineering stuff. If you need to do something complex and serious, typical of the industry, the desktop remains the only viable thing. AJAX & co. is overhyped since the former class is made by definition by publicly accessible applications, while the latter is confined to restricted users. And we have to see which impact JavaFX will be able to achieve in the world. Even if it lose, the winner will be Flex/Air, not AJAX (this means that the two technology will share the market). We won't die in a HTML jail :-)

Sorry - I can't agree. Is the web browser a desktop application? How can you say "the desktop app is dead", when your vision of the future is actually a desktop app? Clearly, there will be an increasing trend for applications and data to be served up from the cloud. However, the traditional web browser is but one desktop or mobile user agent for cloud data and applications. Another popular desktop cloud user agent might be Apple's iTunes; and yet another might be Microsoft Outlook. There are some advantages in making apps browser-based for some use-cases; but there are advantages for not building browser-based apps for others. There's no reason for the desktop to disappear anytime soon. In any case, you can clearly run Swing apps either inside the browser as an applet, or launch them from the browser via Web Start. So even if the desktop itself *is* dead, is that really a reason to say there's no role for left for Swing?

God, if you are listening up there, please save me from the html jail :) eheh

Simple answer. No. I certainly wouldn't want to do software development in a browser, or very low latency bond pricing, or video editing. As aekold says, I wouldn't want to trust my data to a cloud. And even if the apps do run in a browser, you still need a fairly powerful desktop to run the browser plugins/js engine/flash player.

Yes, I do believe it myself. You are equating security with the desktop - that's just plain wrong. Secure networks might not be as secure as an isolated (non-networked) desktop, but who has an isolated desktop? I'm a road warrior now, and all the work that I do is remote - I do rely on remote desktops today, but why? If all the apps were browser apps I'd be happier. A handful of programmers will always need to build windowing environments (like your browser), but the vast majority won't. Don't bet your career on the Desktop paradigm. -JohnR

Do you beleive it yourself? If the only thing you do all the day is chatting in the internet or searching for something - may be. But will your paranoia allow you to send all your photos to google? Move all your music? Connect your personal photocamera or music player to someone's network? To allow desktop to die means to trust to your government, to your internet provider, to both local and distand powerstations, and of course to service provider. Our world is not (yet?) ideal ehough to let desktop die.