The Future of Desktops and Design of the Workstation OS
Ten years from now 90% of people will use something like a tablet or smartphone as their primary computing interface. And the remaining 10% will use a desktop OS on something called a workstation.In fact, I now think I may have been too conservative. Five years is more likely. I've posted several times about this market but I haven't really talked about that other 10%. What will the workstation OS of the future look like? Who will use it? Why would they chose to use it over something like a tablet computer? What new features and apps will they have? This is the first post in a series where I will explore the future of the PC and desktop applications. Over the series I'll cover what I think the future will look like and then deep dive into particular technologies and interfaces that will be required. Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about tablets. I've got more to say about that coming up soon.
Workstations vs TabletsFirst some definitions. I'm going to stop using the term PC or desktop because they are too ambiguous. I won't use creation vs consumption device because that introduces too many preconceived notions. I've settled on the term workstation and tablet. A workstation is something running a general purpose operating system on a laptop or desktop. In practice this means a future version of Windows, Mac OSX, or Linux. A tablet is a device running a non-general purpose operating system. It is probably a phone or tablet formfactor, but I expect netbooks to be coming soon as well. While there is clearly a lot of gray area between the two types of device key differences are an exposed file system, the ability to install any application, and a heavy focus on keyboard use. I'll talk about why these matter in a moment. In the long run these two types may have shared implementations (as the new Mac OS X Lion demonstrates) but they are still targeted at a different audience.
Why and Who?Who would actually use these workstations if tablets have become so advanced that they can do what 90% of people want, and with far less fuss? I think workstations are for the pro users, where by I mean pro for professional. These are people who use their devices directly to make money, use it for a significant amount of time per day (for work), and most importantly are willing to invest time and money on their devices to get the most out of them. They will be reasonable tech savvy but that doesn't mean they are super-nerds who can explore file systems and mess with printer drivers. There is work to be done, so the device needs to function perfectly and get out of the way. Who would these people be? First are programmers and webdevelopers, obviously, since they need to directly interact with files and use advanced text manipulation tools. Next I'd include people who use advanced content creation tools: 3D artists, architects and engineers, video editors, technical authors. Anyone who works on large documents / structures which have very sophisticated UI needs. I could also see this expanding to business and finance, medical, and engineering fields; since all of these people process large amounts of data. The key to all of these types of people is their need to create, process, and distribute large amounts of data in very sophisticated ways. They need interfaces that are both wide and deep. They are the knowledge workers, and will pay a premium for a device that lets them do what they do. They have a willingness to use a deep interface which requires time to learn; provided they get value proportional to their investment. That last point is probably the most distinguishing feature. There is a subset of users who need professional interfaces and will take the time to learn them, but they also don't want to waste their time because it is valuable. They will pay for good stuff, but will dump you if you are too much of a hassle. These are the knowledge workers.
What do they need?How could we design software for the workstation? We need to focus on a core philosophy. The list below is in no ways complete so I'd love to get your feedback.
Next StepsI've gone on long enough for today. In the next post I'll cover some kinds of interaction that will meet the needs of the knowledge worker, and show some existing examples. In the meantime let me leave you with a few ideas to ponder:
- IDEs are some of the most sophisticated applications available thanks to highly advanced UIs (code completion, class generation, syntax highlighting), heavy integration with other tools (put a web server *inside* of your IDE?), and yet are almost all completely free.
- Only nerds complain that OpenID and OAuth suck for desktop applications. Why?
- File systems let you track files, not documents, and yet documents are usually what we care about. Can we do better?
- iTunes might be the most widely used pro app in the world, even if it's recently jumped the shark.
Wed Aug 24 2011