Will the Cloud Kill Windows as We Know It?

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Microsoft's shift into a "cloud first/mobile first" company has been rapidly evolving over the last 90 days. The company has open sourced server software, added support for Linux on its Azure cloud, and has been offering free software and subscription bundles to get customers hooked on Office 365 Home. Is it time to think about a true post-Windows world?

I write this from the perspective that every three to five years, without fail, most people need to get a new computer. Initially, it was necessary to upgrade to get access to the greatest hardware bells and whistles, but there was always the underlying fact that a new operating system couldn't run on older software. You needed more memory, you needed more storage, and you needed a faster processor.

For better user interfaces, better graphics, and hotter games, businesses and consumers alike accepted the cyclical nature of hardware upgrades, consoling ourselves that we could store more photos and edit them more easily while our spreadsheets ran faster.

The Internet has shifted the hardware paradigm quite a bit. With few exceptions, software is now distributed on line, downloaded directly to a drive. This has simplified device design and lowered cost a bit, while shifting some distribution costs to the consumer – if you don't have an Internet connection, you don't get software or the manual.

Buying a new PC means the only things installed on it are Windows and potentially the distributions for Office software. Turning on installed software is a matter of purchasing a license key.

The catch to the "new" network-connected Windows is the monthly Update crunch. Bug fixes, security fixes, and other updates, typically followed by a reboot and more time lost as Windows thrashes through updating its registry and does other reconfiguration tasks. Traveling offers its own special set of horrors, as Windows first ends up trying to download updates on a public network, followed by the reboot/update/reconfigure cycle, with muttered prayers that everything comes back up before you have to get on the plane home.

Moving applications and the Windows OS into services on a Microsoft-based cloud would drastically shrink the whole Windows Update cycle. Microsoft would benefit because it wouldn't have to have the monthly broadband dumps to hundreds of millions of devices around the world. Customers would benefit because they would simply "log in" and go to work, with the bulk of the code and overhead maintained by Microsoft as a service.

The client/server/browser model is nothing new. Back in the 1980s, MIT rolled out the X Windows system for UNIX, supporting a basic graphical interface on a display device with the heavy lifting done on the terminal. Later, the web browser became the standard remote user interface to access web services.

More recently, Google has promoted Chrome and Chromebooks as its version of client/server for the masses. Chrome's problem in widespread adoption have been twofold: A lack of software beyond the basics and assuming perfect access to broadband. Only recently has Chrome been massaged enough to support stand-alone operations without connections to a server.

Microsoft says it plans to have Windows 10 running on everything from servers to mobile devices and Internet of Things (IoT) widgets. But if it moves users to the cloud for the bulk of applications people want, the need for a code heavy -- and therefore an update and hardware heavy -- operating system becomes far less necessary.

Windows 10 may be Microsoft's last big OS project for the masses if it is successful in its new cloud-first strategy. Hardware manufacturers might not be too happy with it, but the PC hardware business has been adapting to the decline and fragmentation of the consumer electronics world with the advent of smartphones and tablets. Certainly, Microsoft shareholders should be happier if Windows users are converted over from a one-time operating system sale to a monthly or yearly recurring payments for cloud services.

 

Contributing Editor

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