The Rapidly Changing Desktop

Two years ago, I got into a conversation with another professional about the desktop. I opined that very shortly, the desktop would be our cell phone and there would be no need to put file servers at everyone's desk. This was partially driven by the announcement that morning, at LinuxCon, by Qualcomm, that they were going to put dual-core 1 GHz processors in their next generation cell phones. This professional pooh-poohed the idea as completely unworkable.

Flash forward to 2012, and not only is it workable, it is viable, and very realistic. Note that as I go through this, when I am talking about a desktop, I mean either a physical desktop machine or a laptop, but in either case it is the standard CPU/RAM/hard disk system connected to a monitor or monitors with a mouse/trackball and keyboard via docking station, cables, or wireless and running a fat operating system - whether that is Linux, Windows, or Mac.

I argue that in a typical enterprise environment, the 80/20 rule applies when you look at application use and processing power. 80% of the people are using only 20% of the computing power in their machines. If you have any experience in large enterprises you are snorting because it is unlikely they are even using 20%, but let's use this for illustration. The majority of worker bees are doing simple tasks. They are writing documents, whether in a word processor or in email, they are preparing or delivering presentations, which really is only specialized word processing. They are surfing the web, administering systems, working or submitting tickets, or reading. None of these tasks is particularly computationally taxing.

The other 20% are doing tasks that are computationally taxing. Advanced data analytics, audio/video/graphical composition, CAD/CAM, data or event modeling, even some local compilation to ensure builds will work. These people have need for some serious horsepower.

Now, five years ago, I would have argued that the group doing the computationally taxing work could have justified a personal desktop device. The rest could be connected by a thin client to a virtual desktop located in the server room. Today, I am not sure I can support the argument that the 20% need to have a dedicated machine. Are there corner cases for a personal desktop? Sure. The most obvious one to me is the dedicated system, such as a DAW or CAD/CAM system where there may be additional inputs needed for specialized equipment. In the rest of the cases, where it is just an issue of computation within a system, there really is no need for a desktop anymore.

What drove this home for me were a couple of things. I work for a company that develops software. We used to issue each developer two servers for their development use. As you can imagine, that is expensive, both in terms of hardware and associated environmental costs. When we started the current round of development, we had the option of either refreshing the servers or virtualizing. The solution was to move to virtual development environments, which reduced the server needs and saved us a bit in energy costs. The developers remote into these machines from their desktops, write and build their code, check it in and out of our version control system, and essentially do their work. There is no real difference between having a dedicated machine and running in a virtual environment. In the case of those developers who have been here longer, moving to a virtual environment actually increased their ability to work because of the age of their original development platforms.

But the real eye opener came when our IT department reclaimed the laptops issued to us and reformatted them to the corporate standard Windows 7 x86_64. I was running Linux. I was not a happy camper, but they played the policy card and I really did not have the time or energy to fight them. I had real work to do and this was just a distraction. So I did what any Linux person would do. I tared up my desktop and pushed the contents up to my file server (what? You don't have your own rack of servers to work with? Just because I virtualized my developers does not mean I did not keep a couple of servers for my own use). OK, so I have the luxury of having a number of test servers at my disposal and I converted one of them into a KVM host and stuck my desktop into a virtual container.

No harm, no foul, and here is my laptop, please install putty and a VNC viewer on it so I can use it as a dumb terminal. I was then told it would take two days to image my machine. My retort was to ask to have my iPad put on the wireless network so I could continue to work. Or at least check my email. (Yeah, yeah, this would have worked with any Android tablet too - I just happen to use iDevices, get over it). So as I was sitting in my cube wondering what I was going to do with the next two days, I there an app for that? The answer is yes. A quick search of the web and I found a suitable ssh client and the Real VNC viewer. I hooked up my bluetooth keyboard and bang, I was operational - remoted into my desktop. That night I stopped and picked up a VGA cable and I could remote the video from my iPad to my larger monitors. But this got me thinking. If I could do this with my iPad, could I do it with my iPhone? Well, I would not recommend it without a way to remote your video to something bigger, but the answer was yes. And I remembered my conversation. I had moved my desktop to my phone. What was a theory two years ago in my mind had become a practical reality.

I am not going to say that we will see a conversion to this new model overnight. But I think we will see it sooner, rather than later. With the release of the Microsoft Surface, which, as pointed out by one pundit is really nothing more than an Ultrabook® with a removable keyboard, along with Cisco's almost persistent marketing of Bring your own device, and VMWare Federal harping on the cloud and provisioning desktops with thin clients, the move is afoot. And there are solid economic reasons to do this. Further, with the release of the Intel Sandybridge chip, computing power at the server side is only going to increase and we will see a much larger push to move desktop environments, for those that need them, into virtual containers. We will also see another rapid increase on n-tier systems to support mobile device access. To achieve this, we, as administrators and architects have to consider a new raft of issues, the least of which is incorporating IPv6 in our networks, secure network access, and platform agnostic authentication methodologies. These require cutting edge software and forward thinking.

In 2010, I said the desktop is dead and the mobile device will be the new meme, but it had a long way to go. Under Moore's law, a long way is a very short time.


David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack


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now the handset has developed

thoi trang online's picture

now the handset has developed very quickly. The desktop computer is gradually replaced by laptops.But some work still needs to desktop computers that

Now the handset has developed

thoi trang online's picture

Now the handset has developed very quickly. The desktop computer is gradually replaced by laptops.But some work still needs to desktop computers that

Reply to comment | Linux Journal

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TRoger's picture

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I agree with this, its a

tline's picture

I agree with this, its a shame that this had to occur. Editing photos is very simple so I do not understand why this couldnt be accomplished.

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Sineklik Tamiri's picture

An article has been beautiful, but I think a little bit more personalized.

Microsoft was true of rapid change. But these changes do not need to be followed 10 years later with the other software companies can not cope...

why buy a pc not an android iphone

nancyfromafrica's picture

desktop market has surely gone down since the advent of laptops and smart phones, also the tablet phones have reduced the number and market of pc's only people who are into development are now buying these machines.

Very True

tires's picture

Yeah thats true. Completely agree with you.

What is really essentia

Peter Good's picture

Precisely what is really essential is an easy option to put together the capabilities of several servers. All of this servers could in fact be virtualised. but really should provide a method to give out your threads through out a couple of comparable hosts.
Of course there are a lot of specialised solutions just as are distcc or gfs.
good laptops

Exactly. You can never have

tightline's picture

Exactly. You can never have too many computers or be up to date with the everchanging world.


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Multi-core processors at the

Mariah's picture

Multi-core processors at the moment are common inside usual computers and after this it really is becoming trend in cell phones as well as mobile phone enterprise. Qualcomm introducing its first dual-core processor will take huge step towards mobile computing.

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What an incredibly long way

Anonymous's picture

What an incredibly long way of stating the obvious: the cloud is going to be used in the future.

real world just aien't so ..

Mech Fori's picture

well , if one is already well and technically prudent. One might get over that, but sorry for majority of commercial, office, and even small scale workgroup need in real world. there is still no substitute for a desktop. Try asking the book-keeper to do the shop ledger on a tablet, or ask the secretariate to type up that long marketing plan without a decent ( high resolution also ) display etc ... yes they are typically only using 20% ( I would say less in fact ) of the computational power, but its not just the CPU that counts on a desktop.

Not Surprised

Clyde P's picture

Now I know it depends on the work you do but I can't think of how many times I've been saved by my phone because I ran into a situation outside the office. I've done things on my phone that I didn't think would be possible 5 years ago.


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Good enough!

marindarrell's picture

Good enough! If the change contains positive schemes and with prolific motives then it is always welcomed but without any specific reason or motive any changes only hamper the flow what is not supported in fact. Thanks for sharing your opinion.

now the handset has developed

thoi trang online's picture

now the handset has developed very quickly. The desktop computer is gradually replaced by laptops.But some work still needs to desktop computers that

Right about desktop PC, wrong about work station

Anonymous's picture

As I read it, the idea seems to be computing power of mobile devices is enough for most office work. Agreed. That doesn't mean doing away with the comfortable chair and free deskspace, large keyboard, full size screens to see several windows at a time, and telephone handset or headset. Workers need a workspace to settle in and work seriously, as compared with floating around trying to get work done in distracting committee rooms to planes/trains/cars to coffee shops with a little device. My guess is primary device phones and/or tablets will soon jack into "dumb" but recognizeable full-sized workspaces at office, home or elsewhere.

What is a desktop?

PurpleLibraryGuy's picture

It seems to me this article blurs a couple of concepts. Sure, thin clients are viable for most work--have been for ages. And, sigh, so is cloud computing although I don't really see why people want it. My data is mine, I'll keep it under my personal physical control, thanks. The cloud might be handy for keeping a backup copy.

But when people talk about desktops versus tablets or phones, that's not really the issue. What makes a desktop something other than a tablet is things like having a full sized keyboard and a big screen. And really, for decent word processing, especially if you want to keep track of a couple of other things as well, and for many other business functions that don't require much actual computing power, you do want a full sized keyboard and a nice big screen, that you can sit down to comfortably for a longer period of time. To my mind, at that point it doesn't matter whether that's powered from the box sitting under the desk or from the phone sitting in your pocket, it's a desktop. And it will work best with an interface that is designed not for phones but for making use of the real estate of larger screens.

Bluetooth keyboards...

Joey Cagle's picture

You do realize you can connect a bluetooth keyboard to a tablet or a phone, right?

Corporate Policy

Anonymous's picture

How long did it take your ICT people to install Windows 7 x86_64 onto your iPad and iPhone??


chas's picture

All these smarter phones and tablets allow us to do one thing - stay connected. To our desktop, to our email, to our file servers, etc. People still need to work on a keyboard, but the boundaries between work/home/wired/notwired are fuzzy. We need the connection all the time.

Speak for yourself -- I for

Fred Sanford's picture

Speak for yourself -- I for one have no need or desire to have "the connection" all the time! (I don't have a smart phone or a tablet, and keep work and home completely distinct and separate.)

Did I mention I am a Ludite?

David Lane's picture

As you may know if you have read enough of my posts, you know one of my favorite laments for most of this technology is it usually requires some sort of connection, whether that is wired, wireless, or cellular, so I fully support the idea of being unplugged (I write a lot of my posts in pen before typing them in in fact).

So I congratulate you for not being connected!

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

In large part I agree

PatrickEB's picture

In some places I've worked the devices on the desktops are over-powered and over-priced.

Given many people at home now use web-based services and applications and primarily use their $1000+ desktops/laptops for browsing the web, sending e-mail and occasionally writing something these more and more powerful small devices (like phones) are coming into their own.

I know a great many people for whom an ASUS Transformer would be all they needed. The keyboard is pretty okay and because the keyboard and tablet securely attach together it's a pretty nifty and portable device similar to a netbook.

Full sized keyboards with large screens attached to very small devices are certainly going to be able, in fact currently are often able, to provide all the grunt that most office-based workers need.

There are exceptions (as always) and price is a huge issue, especially when it comes to repairs etc.

totally agree with you.

buddyRJ's picture

totally agree with you. Ubuntu for Android comes to mind, which im going make use of it when it comes out.

The Circle is complete

Anonymous's picture

For anyone who has memory of timesharing - dumb terminals linked to a mainframe for computer use - the circle is now complete - think about it.
The only difference is todays world has devised a new language to define it - probably to maintain the mystique in their jobs and position.
An apple is an apple - whatever you call it.

Somewhere back in time...

David Lane's picture

I said this about cloud computing...but yes, the circle is now complete. And for pretty much the same reasons.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

Computational intensive servers

UndiFineD's picture

What really is needed is a simple solution to combine the powers of multiple servers. these can be virtualised. but should offer a way to distribute your threads among several alike hosts.
sure there are specialized solutions like distcc, mpi or gfs
but beowulf is near dead.

And most of all, we should promote parallel thinking.
too many programs are created linear for simplicity.

We've had it for a while now

tacra's picture

It's called Parallel Virtual Machine and the tech was designed around the idea that the work to be done can be put into multiple threads. The actual software had Linux and Windows binaries so that a mixture of those two platforms could make one virtual machine. I usually don't like to reference wikipdiea for anything but their article on PVM seems accurate.

Some of the ideas are also in html version 5 with worker threads. For many years, I've thought about how one could build a super parallel machine using a database, a web server, and all the web browsers in the world. It isn't unlike the @home networks of SETI.


UndiFineD's picture

hello Tecra, thanks for the suggestion.
I have looked at PVM and yes it could work.

Normally I try to avoid this, software gets old, argument.
Software does not care if it is run today while conceived 15 years ago.
In the case of PVM however it is actually true.
As it was used to combine the powers of systems some 15 years ago.
The capabilities those systems had are marginal compared to what is standing under my desk today.

The last version of PVM (3.4.6) was released in 2009, Ubuntu today still distributes one build upon the previous version with many patches.
Meanwhile we have gained elements like open-mpi2 (1.6), special purpose hardware like cuda and others like it. and many other useful pieces that could be brought together.

PVM needs a proper major update or replacement that does away with architectures that do not exist anymore. Add an interface that makes sense to the majority of administrators and users.

new tech/old ideas

tacra's picture

Much of the software we use today is still the old code. Sure new features are added, bugs fixed, parts rewritten to make it easier or more compatible. Much code base of any of large project is usually more tweaks of old code to work with the newer systems and newer compilers.

To PVM like solutions, I generally see a limited use as they work best when you can divide the problem to be solved into smaller parts that can be worked on independently.

Where I really see the biggest use of computers is something more like this:

Each person has a virtual computer assigned to him/her. You will likely get it when you get other important things like your government ID number. The VM will be able to "follow" its owner as he/she moves around our world. Hardware will become capable of running these virtual machines regardless of all considerations. The hardware stations will be able to send a running VM to another hardware stations without disrupting the VM or other VMs. Hardware stations will be things like:

  • your home's computer (not home computer of today but a computer that runs your house)
  • your car's computer
  • your cell phone
  • the store's cart's computer
  • your office's workspace's computer

These VMs will become the virtual assistants doing everything like:

  • waking you in the morning
  • scheduling your meetings
  • cooking your breakfast
  • starting your car and opening your garage
  • driving you to work (well it will tell the car's host OS where to go. Not how to drive the car

The lists are incomplete but you get the idea. The VMs will likely be voice activated and while they can still accept touch input won't likely need it. And, they will move as their owners move without having to be told to move. They will simply do it like a love sick puppy hanging on it's master's leg.

A good idea

David Lane's picture

The ability to slop systems back and forth as resources are needed, or freed is likely the next step. There are some early models of this put forward by VMWare, but a more generic solution would allow more useful integration, In my opinion.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

Yeah, no

NightwishPT's picture

Your iDevice keeps reloading web pages because it can't manage to keep anything in cache.
Sorry, that's a no go. It's a great device, but it's no laptop. I'm sure it works for a lot of things, but it's more money for a more limited (but much more portable) experience.


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