Computers as 'applicances' reaching critical mass

I'm not much for prophesy, but I believe we'll see the death of the personal computer in the next 5 years, at least in its current form. Reason? Virtualization, the ability to be at one terminal, but feel like you're on a completely different machine.

Case in point: Here at LXK, we go to meetings. Alot. However, in each of those over-attended, useless meetings, 80% of the people have some form of laptop open multitasking--IM to their team or answering email. This 'laptop' culture has gone through several distinct phases:

  1. Nobody has a laptop. Ah, the days of the short, focused meeting.

  2. People replace their desktops with laptops. Yeah, carry-around your office. Thing is, the laptops have slow, small hard disks and weak processors, and really powerful ones are heavy, so what's the point

  3. Today: People go back to the super-fast desktop machine, and use Windows XP's Remote Desktop to be back "at" that machine via their laptops + wireless internet.

Critical mass occurred when we combined site-wide WiFi and Windows XP installations with Remote Desktop. Thinking about this, I figure the next logical step is replace the honking desktop machine again, but this time replace it with time-sliced "virtual" desktops on some grid machine with a bazillion CPU cycles/second and unlimited storage. Yes, we've come full-circle. What I'm talking about is a next-generation mainframe.

This sort of system would have many advantages:

  • Remote desktop portals need little horsepower. I was driving my quad-processor 2.6Ghz dual screen machine from an ancient, 400Mhz Pentium II laptop yesterday, and I got the response time of the desktop machine. Extending this, you could remove all local storage from the laptops and just make them dumb terminals that hook into the grid. Think $50-$100 / unit, compared to $1500-$2000 today.

  • Central admins for the grid mainframe. Forget managing a fleet of PCs on desktops corporate-wide; your "fleet" is in physically secure server room, admin'd by a smaller group of professionals. You'd need 2-3 of these centers as mirrors of one another for failover scenarios (9/11, natural disasters), but relative costs would be smaller than a fleet of Dells or IBMs

  • Greater control. Everyone's on the same system, so you control what's installed, run, virus scanned, etc. This hearkens back to the salad days of Unix, when 'root' was god of the machine.

The only downside here is creating this data edifice would lead to the irresistable hacker target. Instead of coding a worm to look through everyone's HD for confidentials, I know where your data is, and can concentrate all my efforts on cracking it. Side-channel attacks (sneaking passwords, compromising physical security) or social engineering (turning your own employees against you) become much bigger threats in this environment.

But anyway, I had a moment of clarity and thought I'd share :-)

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