Cannibalism or Convergence?

I’ve been following some of the commentary and fallout (and some of the overblown suggestions) regarding Apple’s latest iPhone. Now that most of the hype has died down and things have more or less returned to normal, I’d like to share some of my own thoughts on the matter and what changes (if any) we’ll be seeing in the near future. First though, I’ll admit: I’m no fan of Apple, but I do commend them for having the foresight to migrate iOS to a 64-bit platform well ahead of when they may actually need it. Many of the comments in the HN article are insightful: The performance gains to be had from 64-bit are minimal at best, particularly on a phone, but in another 2-3 years, phones will probably be in the 4-8GiB RAM range, and 32-bit will suddenly become a liability. Any migration forgone now will be mandatory once the 4GiB limit is reached, so it certainly makes sense to do it much earlier.

Before anyone points out something I see repeated in replies to the very insightful HN comments, I’d like to preemptively address it to get this out of the way. Yes, I’m aware you can address greater than 4GiB RAM from a 32-bit processor using PAE, but if you’re going to see increases in on-board RAM every 6 months to a year, why not just sideline the issue entirely?

Convergence: Resistance is Futile?

The real nagging question that’s been permeating tech-circles for weeks is one of the convergence of platforms. It seems with the latest iPhone, dozens of pundits and dozens more droves of Apple fans are touting the death of the desktop, that the time of the reign of mobile will soon be upon us. I’m not so sure I’m convinced, but I do think that news and musings like this don’t occur in a vacuum isolated from everything else. I think I now know why Microsoft has made some bizarre decisions that may soon prove to be fatal, but I’ll get to that later.

When I was about 18, I remembered watching a short clip on Good Morning America on the future of technology. My mum insisted that I watch the whole thing, too, because she seemed puzzled by the teaser offered earlier in the show. I don’t precisely remember the contents of the program, but I do remember one of the guests talking about the future of desktop computers, the Internet, and technology. He suggested that within 5-10 years (bear in mind this was circa 1999), the desktop would be supplanted by a thin client; he insisted that the systems would consist of little more than a monitor, some RAM, and a network connection. They would then be tied into a central server run by a large corporation (essentially a network appliance before the term “network appliance” was in vogue), and all of your applications, games, and just about everything else would run from that central server.

At the time, I had the distinct advantage in that I understood a little bit about networking. While I was no networking genius (I’m still not, but I know quite a bit about the protocols we rely on), I knew enough about bandwidth and the rate bandwidth was growing to know that such dreams were prohibitive–at least for a while–but there was the nagging question about games and similar applications that relied on relatively quick rendering or significant network throughput. Would that be sent down the pipe, too? It seemed absurd, and while there have been some attempts today at remotely rendered games, the latency and throughput precludes any such utility outside laboratory curiosity. Likewise, the processing power simply isn’t available to power hundreds of thousands of players simultaneously playing something like the latest CoD or whatever other graphics-intensive games happen to be on the market. The gaming industry will likely be the saving grace of the desktop, and this may be a surprise to everyone but the lowly gamer. It’s no surprise then that the PS4 and Xbone are migrating more toward commodity PC hardware when just a decade ago, everyone assumed that PowerPC-based platforms would become the norm for the next ten years. If only we had the gift of foresight…

Still, the irony is not lost on me that the talkshow guest all those years described something that would later evolve into what is now known as cloud computing with the minor exception that the dream of thin, inexpensive client devices has not yet been realized. To a limited extent that may be true, but “thin client” applications (now cloud apps) have instead demonstrated incredible utility in niche use cases rather than general consumption. One could argue that smart phones and tablets have long supplanted the dream of the thin client (and they’re cheaper, too) with greater capability and storage. The future seems to be one where computing is something you carry with you, not something that rests centralized in a data center thousands of miles away. It’s such a romantic thought to consider highly portable devices when you consider that it was just a little more than 20-30 years ago when the home computer transitioned from dream to widespread reality, isn’t it? It’s also important not to get too caught up in the romance, because it’s easy to make assumptions that might never come to fruition.

So, I would like to make a prediction: I don’t think there will be a convergence of desktop and mobile in the future. Maybe I’ll be eating my words in 5 years, in 10 years, or maybe I’ll be right. Instead, I think the two represent use cases different enough to force them into the position they’re in now: They’ll continue working as complements. I’ll explain why.

The True Face of Tablets

Tablets have presented an amazing boom to an already growing industry. Nearly everyone has at least seen a tablet, and many people own at least one. A year or two ago, it would’ve been a surprise to see an old lady stepping out of her car in the church parking lot, shuffling into the building, taking a pew, and carefully plucking a tablet from her purse. Today it’s almost commonplace, or at least it’s becoming common enough to be unsurprising. Using a healthy dose of anecdotal evidence to support such claims, I’d like to point out that my mum has a tablet she takes to church. Several of her friends from church have tablets. I’ve even heard from others who also have tablets, and speak highly of the devices, often describing them as liberating. (Actually, the term they use is “handy,” but the idea they’re describing is one of liberation.) The only unusual thing about this particular demographic is that none (or few) of their husbands also own tablets. Many of the older men won’t even touch them. I’m not quite sure what this says about the 60-75 age group and up, but I do know what this says about the technology and, more importantly, about the predictions.

With the rise of mobile, pundits have been lamenting the death of the PC as a drawn out but inevitable obituary. The more progressive minds among them proclaim that the day will soon come that everyone will be equipped with tablets. Office workers, programmers, bus drivers, and teachers. If you need a desktop, you’ll simply plug your tablet (or phone) into a docking station, and begin working from the OS embedded in your mobile device. If this sounds familiar, it should. The concept of a “desktop replacement” isn’t new, and according to Wikipedia, it dates back to the 1980s. What is new, however, is that for the first time in the history of computing, desktop sales have been stagnating while mobile devices have been enjoying record growth in sales.

Does this support any evidence that suggests the desktop will soon pass on into the hereafter? Should we ready our speeches and mournfully reminisce about days gone by? No. I’ll explain why I feel this is just another notch in the tree of technological evolution.

First, and most obviously, mobile device sales numbers are somewhat conflated. Pundits who point to the sales figures as definitive evidence that the PC is a dead man walking typically neglect to consider planned obsolescence, particularly in mobile data and voice contracts. Even tablets have fairly limited useful lifespans of approximately 2-3 years. Technological pressures exerted on the mobile platform are far greater than that of the PC which often has a useful service life of 5-8 years in light use or in an office environment. Software requirements, hardware capabilities, and battery age all factor in to determine the life time of a mobile device. Of course, this doesn’t neatly explain everything. With the world economy struggling, shouldn’t mobile device sales be impacted, at least slightly? Well, maybe not. They are rather cheap, after all.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, mobile devices are relatively inexpensive for what they do. For those of you who don’t regularly play video games, write code, or spend far more time staring into the abyss than is otherwise healthy, mobile devices in general (tablets in particular) are fantastic for casual use. They’re great for reading, they’re great for browsing, they’re great for casual games (“party” games as some of you might call them), and they can be taken almost anywhere provided the battery is in good healthy. The only thing they’re undeniably terrible at is content creation. Maybe that will change the day someone figures out how to make a sort of magnetic/repulsive haptic-style system that provides tactile feedback for a software keyboard? As a touch typist, I find it difficult to spend a great deal of time tapping away at a screen with no distinction as to where my fingers are at any given time. I guess I’m one of those who can’t adjust.

Going back to what I mentioned earlier: Do you remember the somewhat anecdotal evidence I offered up of the old ladies and their tablets? It seems like an atypical use case, particularly in a world where technology is dominated by twenty-somethings carting around the latest iDevice as a sort of electronic status symbol among their peers. The thing is, the twenty-something demographic is reaching saturation, and what seemed atypical just a year or two ago as the rest of society catches up may become far more common than many of us realize. The 20-somethings aren’t everyone.

Essentially, I suspect that the pro-mobile apologists (the PC is dead!) can’t see the forest for the trees and the pro-PC mobile denialists (long live the PC!) don’t want to concede to the reality of the marketplace. Are you ready for it? I’ll even bold it to make it more apparent.

Not everyone needs to own a desktop PC.

I know that’s a shock, but the simplest truth of the matter is that tablets are a better match for the majority use case that the PC previously enjoyed. They’re excellent media consumption devices, and for casual users of technology–like my mum–who rarely e-mail but are voracious readers and researchers, sometimes the tablet is a far more useful device. It’s easier to pick up a tablet and thumb it over to a book you’ve been reading than to fiddle with the overhead lamp and stumble around the house looking for a small paperback you’ve misplaced. It’s easier to pick up a tablet than it is to go into another room, wait for your computer to boot, and go about looking for knitting or crochet patterns. Let’s face it: It’s easier to keep your brains neatly tucked away in a little electronic device not much bigger than the books you used to read as a kid. For many use cases with the exception of content creation, using a tablet simply makes sense, and the demographic I believe that’s fueling the growth–at least in the tablet world–is the 60+ age range. They don’t need to own a computer. Moreover, while many of them may have been exceptional typists at one point (my mum for instance is a touch typist and is responsible largely for my early education as one, too), they’re of the generation where tactile interfaces, like touch, simply make sense. When you grew up in a world where you manipulated knobs, buttons, and widgets, it’s so much easier to use your fingers to manipulate their virtual equivalents than it is to point-and-click. (Point-and-what?)

So, I’m arguing against the convergence of desktop and mobile, but I just made the case for mobile supplanting everything else. Right?

Not quite: The point here is that many of the people who own desktop computers probably never needed to. They don’t usually create a great deal of content. They don’t write e-mails often. They don’t write letters to print out (they do that by hand with a pen and paper–you under-30s know what those are, don’t you?). If they do write something electronically, it’s little more than a quick note. Sure, this use case could easily be filled by a fairly low-powered desktop, tucked away in a back room and only used once a month for printing out letters or the likes, but in general, the older population is beginning to understand that mobile devices have greater utility than their bulkier forebears. As this discovery spreads and seasoned citizens become savvy to the benefits of a small, highly portable computer, sales will continue to skyrocket, and desktop sales will continue to decline.

That means the desktop and mobile device will converge, with the desktop riding off into the night. Doesn’t it?

No, it doesn’t mean anything of the sort.

I alluded to the notion that many pundits fail to recognize many of the realities facing technology, and largely, I think it’s the fault of a combination of misplaced optimism, misinterpretation of market forces, and a healthy dose of wishful thinking. I think some of them also place their predictions on a secret desire to see one platform or the other “win” in the end (e.g. Apple versus Android), and in their minds the desktop is mere collateral damage. Yet, in spite of all the advances in mobile computational power, somehow, virtually everywhere you look, pro-mobile pundits recognize the rapid break-neck speed of mobile advancements while simultaneously ignoring the fact that the same technology that brought the mobile environment to live also powers desktops, and it certainly won’t remain at a standstill. Many of them even claim that Intel’s days are numbered, but Intel is still the one of the largest manufacturers of chips in the world, and they’re dumping billions of dollars annually into research and development. For example, their new 14 nanometer technology will be just around the corner, and the x86 architecture is unlikely to go extinct anytime soon. If anyone should be concerned about mobile, it should be Intel. Yet Intel certainly seems to be hedging their bets on x86 in spite of the encroachment of ARM. Why? Are they that stupid?

I think Intel knows a bit more about the market than we give them credit for. Sure, AMD has introduced ARM-based server chips, but Intel isn’t going to throw away a multibillion dollar industry. In fact, I think they’re banking on growth, because more mobile devices almost directly equate to more media consumption, more users, and more services requiring new hardware to grow and expand. Although speculation has been mounting that ARM will likely oust Intel in the server space, I hardly see that happening. While ARM capabilities are growing, Intel’s chips are sipping less and less power. The next generation of Intel server CPUs will likely be fast and energy efficient. They’ll have many of the benefits that ARM currently boasts, mitigating the expensive decision of migration.

Yet, paradoxically, even if ARM were to win this battle and oust x86, it likely wouldn’t spell the end of the desktop. There are ARM ports of Windows (although legacy x86 applications won’t run on them), Windows RT, and most open source applications can be recompiled for a new architecture without much fuss. Apple, also built on an empire of open source technologies, could just as easily migrate their OSX offerings to other architectures, but chances are pretty high that they won’t. Modern x86 chipsets are still substantially more powerful than the CPUs in mobile devices, and if history provides us with any incite into this trend, it’s a reality that will continue indefinitely pending unforeseen circumstances.

Sorry mobile buffs. x86 is here to stay. As power requirements drop, it’ll be big iron with a slimmer waistline, from your desktop to the datacenter.

What’s this mean for the desktop?

As far as predictions go, I think the more outlandish and progressive a theory, the more likely it is to be incorrect. Careful, cautious, and more conservative predictions tend to be accurate, and I think that the next 5-10 years will be more of the same that we’ve had the last 2-3 years. Mobile use will continue to increase, particularly among people who don’t really need a desktop, and desktops will still be purchased each year for tens of thousands of students, families with children, and grandparents who need a device that is more suitable for creating content than consuming it. That isn’t to say that mobile devices won’t be powerful enough to fill that niche in the next 5 years. No, mobile devices will be plenty powerful. It’s simply that the use cases for which they are designed (largely media consumption) don’t lend themselves well to writing essays at length or generally creating content. Casual photo manipulation may be one such realm conquered by mobile, but don’t count on anything more complicated than cropping, resizing, and other basic edits to family photos; finger-Photoshop is unlikely to supplant the real thing, because real graphics designers don’t even use a mouse. Indeed, among graphics designers, a “tablet” is something with a pen and a touch surface; it isn’t a mobile computer.

Another particularly problematic aspect for mobile devices is one of freedom. With a desktop, most users enjoy relative freedom to choose what they want to install and how the platform behaves. More savvy users can even repair or upgrade their computer, and the savviest of them all can build them from scratch. The PC gained much of its momentum because the platform is mostly open and relatively easy to maintain. From a developer’s perspective, nearly anyone could write software for most desktop environments without fear of walled gardens. Anyone could buy new hardware. Unfortunately, mobile threatens that freedom. Mobile threatens to concentrate the capabilities of the software in the hands of a few corporations and to consolidate software development to the anointed few. “App stores” are the antithesis of freedom, and while they operate under the guise of security, it’s difficult to reject the notion that users are trading their freedom for convenience. Of course, those of us who are aware of the dangers of computing-as-an-appliance are few and far between. While we may not be numerous, we have a secret weapon stashed away in a dark closet that we can unleash in a moment’s notice: The gamer.

I’ll warn you: I’m about to wax philosophical in this section, and this is where many disagreements will undoubtedly lie.

Gamers are notorious individuals in the tech community. They’re the folks you go to when you want to tweak your hardware or install fancy lighting, creating something of an outrageous and ridiculous exhibit of post-modern art meets Thomas Edison. Yet as much as major studios and console developers have tried, the PC has stubbornly lived on, thumbing its nose at enforced conventions and plowing its own way into the fields. The XBox 360 was slated to serve as a PC-gamer replacement, shifting players from the ubiquitous keyboard-and-mouse to thumbsticks and bumper buttons. It didn’t. It did replace the PC for some casual gamers, but for the MMO and hardcore FPS gamers, the console is surprisingly absent and unwanted. It isn’t for lack of capabilities, either, and while the real reason for this escapes me, I suspect it might have something to do with the very thing that Microsoft has been more than willing to destroy as of late.

For many gamers, the PC is the end all, be all of their hobby. They’ll have browsers open, they’ll have instant messengers running, and they might even be checking e-mail all at the same time while speaking on a VoIP client with a handful of other gamers. The PC, while not particularly useful for casual use, is very good at many things, and that’s where I think it will continue to shine. It took years for Apple to introduce some semblance of task switching in iOS, and even Android still suffers, in my opinion at least, from non-intuitive task switching. Simply put: Mobile devices don’t have an alt-tab. They instead attempt to weld multiprocessing into a platform for which it wasn’t natively designed. For the PC, running dozens of applications and switching among them is an uninteresting problem. It was solved long ago, and the UI design for switching among them has long since been established. For mobile? Not so much and there’s plenty of room for disagreement on how it should be managed in the future.

Part of this limitation in mobile devices is due, at least in part, to the technical requirements of saving battery power. By giving the OS greater control of an application’s life cycle and suspending or terminating it when it’s not in use, the OS is able to control power consumption more directly. Halting a processor-hungry application while the user isn’t using it works great on a platform where available energy is at a premium until the next recharging cycle, but it isn’t much of a consideration for a computer that’s plugged into a wall outlet. This, I believe, is mobile’s Achilles’ Heel. Whereas on the desktop, a CPU-hungry task can run indefinitely, simultaneously sharing available process time with other running tasks, on a mobile device, such desires are fantasy at best and a dead battery at worse. The ability to use a computer for more than one thing at a time is what I believe will continue to breathe life into the desktop and may stay or entirely halt the encroachment of the mobile device into the realm of office work. That’s to say nothing about specialized use cases or niche fields (think software developers, monitoring stations, enterprise, and scientific use).

To this end, I think the dream of carrying a tablet computer to work every morning (to say nothing of the security issues surrounding such practice) will remain such. It’s a dream akin to the prediction some 12 years ago that everyone would be using thin clients attached to a centralized server. Mobile devices are useful to a lot of people for a lot of things, but I highly doubt they’ll replace them entirely. As complements, however, mobile devices shine like little stars in the blackest of nights.

Curiously, there’s one last thing that might hold back the mobile device beyond simply the logistics of convincing your workforce to take home a device and plug it into their workstation every morning. It’s also much more primal than any of the other reasons: Tactile feedback. Have you ever stopped to type a lengthy letter on a touch screen? It’s not fun. As I mentioned earlier, and it’s worth repeating here again for those of you who fell asleep due to my bloviating, touch typing on a mobile device sucks. I daresay it’s even a waste of time. Until someone can think up a way to use electric or magnetic forces to provide some sort of a tactile barrier above each key that provides feedback similar to a keyboard, lengthy writings will be limited to the desktop or a tablet of a different era–the paper tablet.

So what’s this got to do with Microsoft?

I’m glad you asked, and I’m sorry for making you suffer through thousands of words. I’ve never been concise, especially when I’m particularly vocal about a subject. Or excited. Or have a captive audience. (Don’t worry, I’ll let you go very shortly.)

It’s no surprise that Microsoft has been sitting on the sidelines watching the mobile universe speed by almost perpetually out of their grasp. It’s also no surprise that Microsoft has been desperate to snag some share of a rapidly growing market, and they’ve even gone so far as to alienate their entire installed base by grafting a mobile UI onto a desktop OS.

I’m talking, of course, about the blasphemy to everything Microsoft has every done in recent memory called Windows Hate. Wait, no, that’s not right. Windows 8! There we go! I knew it was something that sounded like a bodily function. I’m just pleased to know that I remembered which function that happened to be.

Ignoring for a moment the love-hate relationship many users have with Windows 8 and the shameless fanboys who are undoubtedly paid to praise it for all its shortcomings, it’s been painfully obvious since its inception that Windows 8 represents a new, self-destructive era for Microsoft. The Windows Store, left unchecked, may threaten the vast ecosystem of 3rd party applications if Microsoft should ever choose to lock down the OS to install only certified applications. But, curiously, Windows 8 also represents what I think may be the evolution of Microsoft’s market strategy.

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced the closure of the Games for Windows Live marketplace, leaving dozens of games and DLC in a state of perpetual limbo. It remains to be seen what Microsoft intends to do with software that is now rendered unavailable to newcomers, but the fate of GfWL is already sealed: It’s due to close entirely by next year (2014).

At this point, there’s only two possibilities that remain. The first, that Microsoft plans to reopen the marketplace under unified banner to serve Windows and Windows-based devices and the Xbone. The second, that Microsoft plans to segregate Windows and Windows devices under the Windows Store and away from their gaming platform marketplace. While I’m hoping the latter won’t occur, part of me is awfully suspicious.

Microsoft has been fairly vocal about their plans for the Xbone, even reneging on promises based on consumer feedback. But I almost worry that their plans are to entirely cannibalize the gamer market with their Xbone offerings. If Microsoft refuses to reopen anything like GfWL again abandoning dozens of titles in the process, then cannibalization might be the only thing in their strategy. Where else can you get customers?

The only problem is that cannibalization is never a good strategy. The first hint to me that Microsoft is likely planning on killing off Windows as a gaming platform comes not from Microsoft but from Valve in the form of their Steam Machines. Working closely with dozens of vendors, gaming studios, and developers, the Steam Machines are Linux-based and likely to use a distribution model not all that dissimilar from Android. Valve won’t necessarily be making the hardware themselves, but, like Google, they’ll be releasing the operating system entirely for free to companies that do plan on making hardware. Undoubtedly, these companies will be afforded the opportunity to customize the OS (within reason; probably adhering to a specific set of standards) much as it appears they’ll be taking liberties in terms of hardware selection and capabilities. Applying the Android model to consoles is almost a brilliant maneuver, and it makes me wonder who will be left as the “iPhone” of consoles: The XBOX or Playstation? I think you can guess which company I’m betting on.

This leaves Microsoft in a precarious situation. By all but forcing the gaming crowd onto the Xbone by limiting Windows to a certain degree (either by way of no longer porting titles or allowing dozens of established ones to stagnate) and attempting to create a homogeneous platform between desktop and mobile long before anyone else, Microsoft may wind up shooting themselves in the foot. Valve is already discretely collecting various bits of productivity software in their Steam platform, so it’s not all that difficult to imagine a world where one simply needs to download SteamOS, login, and have available all the software they’d ever need. I can also guarantee that SteamOS’ package manager will be indistinguishable from Steam itself but some concessions may be made in terms of other popular package managers. We’ll know more in the coming weeks and months.

I’m just not sure how I feel about a DRM platform, like Steam, becoming the new walled garden courtesy a highly customized variant of Linux. It’s almost ironic to consider that a free operating system to which users may be driven due to a lack of freedom elsewhere would ultimately become their internment.

I think it’s also somewhat ironic that in a battle between Apple and Android (more specifically, Google), one of the most notable casualties would be Microsoft. In effort to reach for greater market share in the mobile world, like Icarus reaching for the sun, Microsoft may find themselves plummeting to earth. Having sacrificed the desktop for their mobile and Xbone divisions, the only thing that might cushion their fall is the enterprise (or business, or government), but if a handful of European States have taught us only one thing, it’s that switching isn’t difficult after all.

That Microsoft’s empire could crumble at the hands of a war in which they were hardly targeted is indeed ironic, but it’s also a testament of where their leadership has driven them. In that sense, mobile may indeed destroy the desktop, if that desktop happens to carry a Windows logo.

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