January 28, 2005

The Alternative Desktop

One of the biggest selling points for Open Source and/or Free software has been the alternative desktop -- an alternative to the Microsoft desktop. There has been a great gig and dance about how Open Source can replace Microsoft on the desktop. However it is something that has not materialized and might not in the near future too.

The problem with the statement "replacing the desktop" is that it is so vastly oversimplified. It is a statement that assumes the desktop to be a single monolithic entity, held hostage in a fortress, guarded by a dragon. But that is not the case, there is no single dragon that can be slain in order to own the desktop -- rather there are a variety of komodo dragons, dogs, falcons and lizards that guard different strong holds in the desktop. An understanding of the future of the desktop is in understanding the map of the desktop topology and the wars that are in the offing.

Office applications is the biggest fortress of all -- guarded by the fiercest of all dragons. Office applications - we are defining as text editor + spreadsheet + presentation. The second bastion is email + PIM client. The third biggest fortress is the browser -- and in particular the starting point of browsing, namely search. The next biggest war ground is the multimedia - this is less of a fortress and more of a live, action-filled battle ground. Then there are thousands of other forts, small and large, strewn all over the place.

For some reason Open source has decided to publicly attack the biggest and strongest of all fortresses - the Office applications. By choosing to replace word, maybe, FOSS has chewn more than it can swallow. The reason is simple. The fort is not only the best entrenched, but the dragon protecting it is desperate enough to do anything protect it. MS Office is very strongly entrenched with its users because of the hostages it carries - user data. There is a large amount of user data held inside the proprietary formats of Word, Excel and Powerpoint. People have written macros in Word and Excel that run business processes now. Everyone has their favourite powerpoint templates.

This fact is acknowledged by FOSS alternatives like Open Office and Star Office when they provide compatibility with Microsoft formats. However that is like dragging the donkey by its tail. Providing compatibility, allows existing users to afford continuing with their chosen FOSS option. It is not an incentive to get new users on board. And it is no reason to be an 'alternative'. A true alternative would have to be indistinguishable from MS Office with respect to file formats, macros etc. And any such option is no longer an "alternative" - it is the thing itself. The sheer gigantic wall of having to work with existing data makes FOSS options a non-starter in the Office applications part of the desktop.

Then we have email. Outlook, apart from its infamous record in security, has a major disadvantage working against it - SMTP. Outlook has to, whether it likes it or not, work with SMTP. And SMTP being an open protocol, alternatives are a lot more possible with Outlook. Further, with options like GMail, yahoo and hotmail it is possible to use email without even having a client. And data already existing with Outlook is also exportable and is only a one-time activity in almost all cases. The uniformity of existing data, medium dependency on tool, and an established existing open protocol makes email a good breeding ground for alternatives. Also given that corporates typically go for entereprise-wide implementations, any tool can be implemented across the organization, and provide the same rich set of functionality, without haveing to worry about breaking compatibility of those outside the organization. Inter-organizational data transfer happens using SMTP, which will continue uninterrupted.

The browser is the other major fortress, which is very vulnerable. By the very nature of the web, proprietary-ness is forced to marginalize itself. Formats are more or less open, accessible and available to user regardless of tool used. There is nothing other than the sheer laziness of users preventing a switch from existing browsers to a new browser and from there on to a third browser. The little data, such as bookmarks, that needs to be migrated is typically handled by the installables of the new tool that is replacing the old. The only barrier offered by the incumbent, IE, is the use of ActiveX. However given the stigma already attached to ActiveX, this is not completely insurmountable.

The next battleground is that of multimedia. The field here is data heavy. However this is also the land of the DRMs, restrictions, proprietary standards, incompatibility, RIAA and lawsuits. This is as yet undefined a field, with everyone desperate to corner a pie for themselves. There are fundamental questions about the existence of multimedia on the desktop that have not been answered.

That brief survey over, it is time to look at where the alternative is going to come from. The current Office-focussed FOSS methodology does not look very promising. They seem to be answering a question alright, but it is starting to look like it is the wrong question they are grappling with. The Google approach on the other hand is a lot more viable. Rather than take on the biggest bastion on the desktop, they are going for the rest of them. And rather than seek to replace any of them, they are building powerful allies, making friends, offering services and building a base that they can trigger at any time to provide a true "alternative" on the desktop.

Google is uniquely poised today. On the web, the majority of users start from its pages. It has acknowledged that search is something everyone wants - so it is searching for everyone - news, ecommerce, images and even user harddisks. They are quietly getting into corporations, with their ubiquitous search button. They are aligning themselves with all the new technologies on the web -- keyhole, blogger -- all with a view to providing users the ability to search on it. They are one of the biggest buzz words on the email scene with their touted GMail. They are browser independant and have quiet links with the challengers to IE. When multimedia wars settle into some semblance of order, Google will be there, searching away, pointing people to the multimedia they need. And most importantly, they have shown themselves to be quite unmoved by the existence of MS Office.

It is this wide footprint and their reluctance to touch the word processor that is uniquely equipping Google. In the coming years, Google will be all over the place, either directly or by buying companies out. And when it decides to, it will be in the perfect position to push for the "alternate desktop" -- a desktop that will enable users to do everything they want to do except perhaps create documents. How will this "desktop" look like -- I dont know. But knowing Google, they'll think up of something simply awesome.

Heres to the Googletop
-- ravi

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