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The end of the desktop?

Microsoft is introducing the Windows Virtual Desktop, and ushering in the end of the traditional PC desktop operating system

I’ve been predicting for a while that Microsoft is moving us away from its PC-centric Windows operating system to a cloud-based rental version of Windows.

Now, with the Windows Virtual Desktop beta finally showing up, we’re a step closer to the death of the PC.

I’m old enough to remember how the PC changed everything. Before it, computer users depended on time-sharing systems and dumb terminals, and the companies or schools that owned the centralized computing power called all the shots. After it, we all had our own computing power right on our desks, to do with as we pleased.

The arrival of the beta Windows Virtual Desktop is a harbinger of the end of the PC era. We’re about to take a big step back to the centralised/controlled past.

And maybe that’s OK for most people. I’ve noticed that, even as our lives become ever more centred around technology, fewer people actually are interested in the technology itself. Oh, they love using it, but understanding it at a deep level? Not so much.

Of course, at one time, to get any work done with a computer, you first had to learn a lot, about computers, operating systems, commands and more. Eventually, “friendly” became the most important adverb in computing circles, and we’ve reached the point in user-friendliness that people don’t even talk about it anymore.

Today, Google has shown with its Chrome OS that most of us can pretty much do anything we need to do on a computer with just a web browser.

But Google’s path is not Microsoft’s path. Instead, it’s moving us first to Windows as desktop as a service (DaaS) via Microsoft Managed Desktop (MMD). This bundles Windows 10 Enterprise, Office 365 and Enterprise Mobility + Security and cloud-based system management into Microsoft 365 Enterprise.

The next step, Windows Virtual Desktop, enables companies to virtualise Windows 7 and 10, Office 365 ProPlus apps and other third-party applications on Azure-based virtual machines. If all goes well, you’ll be able to subscribe to Windows Virtual Desktop this fall.

Of course, Virtual Desktop is a play for business users — for now. I expect Virtual Desktop to be offered to consumers in 2020. By 2025, Windows as an actual desktop operating system will be a niche product.

Sound crazy? Uh, you do know that Microsoft already really, really wants you to “rent” Office 365 rather than buy Office 2019, don’t you?

But what about games, you say? We’ll always have Windows for games! Will we? Google, with its Google Stadia gaming cloud service, is betting we’re ready to move our games to the cloud as well. It’s no pipe dream. Valve has been doing pretty well for years now with its Steam variation on this theme.

So where is all this taking us?

I see a world where the PC desktop disappears for all but a few. Most of us will be writing our documents, filling out our spreadsheets and doing whatever else we now do on our PCs via cloud-based applications on smart terminals running Chrome OS or Windows Lite.

If you want a “real” PC, your choices are going to be Linux or macOS.

Well, maybe we’ll still have Linux and macOS. None of the major Linux companies - Canonical, Red Hat, SUSE - makes the desktop a priority anymore. The Linux desktop will continue on, but it will keep going in the same way it is now: a platform only for power-using enthusiasts.

MacOS, which also has Unix as its root, is essential in some fields. But Mac sales make up a smaller and smaller percentage of Apple’s bottom line. I know Computerworld’s own Jonny Evans hopes 2019 will be the year Macs make serious inroads into the PC market. I can’t see it.

It’s not that Macs aren’t great. They are. My friends who do serious video work swear by them. But remember what I said about people becoming less technical?

There will also be some people who need the power that can only come from having fast processors and speedy storage right on their desktop. But our numbers are growing smaller - just like the world of desktop PCs.