What the Cloud Means for the Open-Source Desktop

We've all been told that the "cloud"--whatever exactly we believe that means--is the future, and the desktop is headed for the dustbin. What we hear less about is the potential of the cloud for reinvigorating and redefining desktop computing. Here's how that could happen, and why it should.

For starters, we have to come to terms with the fact that the traditional desktop (which for our purposes includes laptops and other tried-and-true personal computing hardware) still retains a great deal of relevance. Even in a world where consumers eat up highly portable devices with fancy touchscreens--which are at least as popular for the symbolic value they convey as for their practical utility--cheap, reliable PCs are not going away soon.

After all, touchscreens are fun, but when it comes to serious data input, nothing yet compares to a physical keyboard. And while iPads are pretty and convenient in certain circumstances, they're magnitudes less cost-efficient than a traditional computer, not to mention restricted to a relatively narrow software platform.

The bottom line: when touch-enabled portable devices are as powerful, efficient and affordable as traditional hardware, the latter will disappear from the market. But that day of reckoning is still beyond the horizon.

The Cloud Seen From the Desktop

If tried-and-true desktop and laptop hardware is here to stay for the foreseeable future, however, that doesn't mean it will continue to run the same software--at least not if cloud computing retains the momentum it has acquired over the past year.

When computing resources are moved to the cloud and made available over the network, the software platform on which desktop computing currently relies falls apart. It no longer makes sense to pay large sums of money for operating systems loaded with bloat--and in a world where everything runs in the cloud, all software on the desktop end that doesn't contribute to the singular goal of plugging in to the cloud becomes bloat.

In this scenario, open-source operating systems win big. They're free, but even more importantly, they're highly modular and scalable, making it simple for vendors and users to cut out overhead that becomes useless in a cloud-based world.

At the same time, of course, the relocation of computing to the cloud will resolve most of the obstacles that have prevented widespread adoption of open-source operating systems on desktop platforms for the last decade.  When all operating systems can access the cloud equally well--which they can, because the cloud is designed to be platform-blind--the barriers preventing users from ditching proprietary operating systems disappear.

What's Different Now

This is certainly not a new idea. Free-software advocates have promised for as long as I can remember that the Year of the Linux Desktop was upon us, as more and more application developers shifted their attention to the Web.  The reality, however, is that Gmail and Facebook and GoogleDocs have been around for years, yet Linux retains only a minuscule market share in the desktop PC market.

And to go back even further in the past, the thin-client concept, which in some respects parallels the fundamentals of the cloud, promised decades ago to make open-source operating systems irresistibly attractive by offering enormous cost, security and maintenance advantages.  For a variety of reasons, such initiatives also failed to gain much traction.

What's different now is that the cloud is no longer a place only for hosting data.  It's becoming the realm where computing itself happens, mitigating the need for powerful, operating system-dependent applications that previously worked well only on local hardware. The virtualization infrastructure hosting clouds is now sophisticated, flexible and versatile enough to support situations which were not practicable a few years ago.

Don't expect the desktop itself to disappear: as long as users need a cheap and efficient front-end for plugging into the cloud, the desktop is here to stay. But it will be transformed, becoming free, modular and lean.

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