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Debating the future of the desktop

We've been stuck for too long in an idea rut about how to move forward. Maybe Nova Spivack's got the right idea.

When the Comdex trade show was the big technology showcase, the folks back home would always ask me what I saw that qualified as new and exciting. Sure enough, there always was a ton to gossip about. But by 2000, though, the really interesting innovations increasingly revolved around the Internet. Sure, cheaper, smaller, faster continued apace--but how many times can you really get worked up around Moore's Law?

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For obvious reasons, the Internet was attracting keen attention from developers--not to mention the hot money. But as a computer user, my nightmare scenario was also coming true.

After coalescing around the desktop metaphor during the Windows years, the industry seemed stuck for new ideas. The status quo arrangement, where human beings played second fiddle to the computer, was getting set in stone. The late, great MIT computer scientist Michael Dertouzos had railed against this lousy relationship, which defined man-machine interaction from the beginning of the mainframe era. The good news was that he was convinced it was all going to change one day.

Predicting when and how was the hard part.

So it was with more than slight interest that I read Nova Spivack's very nuanced piece on the future of the desktop, with a thesis that is spot on:

"Web desktops to date have simply have been clunky and slow imitations of the real thing at best. Others have been overly slick. But one thing they all have in common: none of them have nailed it."

Spivack instead envisions a future where your computer interface gets spread across different devices connected by a hosted Web service. Instead of a single "desktop" where you must log in front of a specific local device, your access would get spread across any of your devices as the line between Web and desktop blurs. (He calls it the Web 3.0 desktop.)

Today we think of our Web browser running inside our desktop as an application. But actually, it will be the other way around in the future: our desktop will run inside our browser as an application.

But Spivack says this far better than I can. Read his piece through and let me know whether you agree. And if not, what's your best guestimate how this is all going to evolve? However it turns out, we're long overdue for a big change.