The so-called post-PC era doesn't mean Windows applications are going away, but the future of the desktop will be very different.
This era is coming whether we want it or not, in spite of the fact that enterprises still use Windows apps. Windows isn't going to get raptured away overnight, but the trend still scares some people.
For more than 20 years, the majority of which was spent with Windows XP, our desktop has included icons, a clock in the lower-right corner and a Start menu. If the app isn't on our desktop, we look for it in the Start menu. Data is in My Documents, pictures are in My Pictures and everything exists in one monolithic brick of hardware, software and data that sits under our desks.
We got quite good at managing that desktop and even found different ways of deploying it. First came Terminal Services, which shared out a single server OS for multiple users. Then came the hypervisor that brought us both virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and client-side virtual machines (VMs). Each approach offered a different desktop management perspective. But then something changed.
No, it wasn't Windows Vista -- we just ignored that -- it was…
…the iPhone. All of a sudden, people had a new platform for applications, Internet browsing and game playing. Plus, it was much more personal because it was with them every hour of every day. Apple's iPhone and subsequent Google Android devices became the focal point of not only users, but of IT. Desktop virtualization companies were among the first to step up with a way to "corporatize" these devices. Third-party apps found their way to the phones, and so did clients for the major desktop virtualization platforms.
What's the problem with mobile?
There are a number of problems with this mobile approach. First, Windows applications were in no way designed for mobile devices. Nobody, and I mean nobody, prefers to use Microsoft Office's Word on their iPhone over their desktop computer.
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Second, human beings weren't made to use Windows apps on mobile devices. Our fingers are too fat to hit the file menu in Excel without some crazy, Contra-like sequence of pinch-zoom in, swipe, swipe, tap, swipe, pinch-zoom out, pinch-zoom in, swipe, swipe, tap.
The third issue is that the users have options. Apps that are native to the device (or at least the OS) are easily accessible and provide a better user experience. That means we can't just paint over our iPad with a Windows virtual desktop, for instance, and expect everything to be fine. Users have access to other applications that work better than what Windows can provide on some of these devices.
Our goal going forward will be to figure out how to compartmentalize settings, security and data from Windows and make them available to whatever device people are using: Windows, mobile phone or tablet. That abstract combination of settings, security, apps and data is the future of desktop management.
Breaking down the desktop
With that in mind, let's consider how desktop virtualization will look in the face of the post-PC era. Delivering full Windows virtual desktops will give way to delivering the components of those desktops. Our Windows expertise will be put to use by delivering Windows applications as needed, and our desktop management experience will focus on delivering the most appropriate components to the users depending on their device and access methods.
Citrix and VMware have planted the seeds of this desktop management approach already. Citrix transformed Citrix Receiver from a simple client application to an application and data deployment target. Now, the product can deliver a mail app to any device in the appropriate context (iOS apps to iOS, Windows apps to Windows) in a way that makes the most sense to a user -- and without using a data center-hosted tool such as XenDesktop.
VMware is working the same angle with Horizon Suite, delivering applications via HTML5 to any browser, View or ThinApp for Windows applications and desktops, or to Horizon Mobile implementations on mobile devices. Neither vendor has a fully-baked solution yet, but you can see the parts coming together.
No longer will "desktop" refer to monolithic Windows instances that have to contain everything. Instead, the desktop will become a simple access point to whatever application or data the user needs. How this is assembled, managed and presented to the user is the future of desktop virtualization.
You can use aspects of desktop virtualization today to compartmentalize your desktop delivery. Package your applications with ThinApp, App-V, XenApp or an alternative. While you're at it, virtualize your user environments with RES Software, AppSense, Immidio or another user environment management product. Creating flexibility today can help you when the future arrives.
This was first published in October 2012