What’s After Windows – and Who Does it Come From?

For the last two weeks I’ve been talking about desktop operating systems, including why Linux is on the wrong path to be a true desktop operating system and comparing Linux to Windows Vista and Mac OS Leopard, where I concluded that Apple will have in 2008 the best opportunity in its history to grow share.

Both pieces briefly alluded to what will likely come next. This week, let’s jump ahead to 2015 when this next-generation platform is likely to have arrived and see if we can get a feel for what it is and who is selling it.

What is the Next Generation Platform?

Let’s start with the “What” in order to define where the market is going so we may be better able to determine who is on the best path to getting there. The expected attributes of the platform of the future include:

Mobile: Every indicator is pointing to this thing being closer to a smartphone than a laptop computer, and will be designed to be connected wirelessly over a variety of wireless wide and local area networks (WiFi, WiMax, and G3+). Given this will assume a competitively fast wireless network but will, from time to time, still have to perform some functions without it, the offering will reverse today’s model which favors local processing over network capability. In other words the majority of the value will come in over the network.

Media Consumption: One of the big waves right now is the move to put video on smartphones; we have already had a big push to put video on laptop computers. In the future these devices will all have to do a great job of displaying multimedia files and programming, much of it streamed in real time. Clearly music will be a large part of this as well.

Gaming: As the next generation hits the workforce they are bringing with them as deep an affinitiy for gaming as the previous generation had for DVD watching. Gaming capability will be core to the next-gen device platform and corporations will increasingly use gaming platforms for training and education. In addition, in-game marketing will go a long way to making both the devices and the games very affordable.

Communications: This goes to the core of the idea that this future device will be as much a follow-on to the smartphone as it is to the PC. Blending capabilities and probably heavily using VoIP, this device will have the capability to handle both phone and video traffic, outbound and inbound. This future device will also embrace IM and e-mail. While I expect we will still have a smaller, possibly wearable, device for simple communications, this larger, but still portable, platform will form a primary window into, and out of, the world for its users.

Services: Services will come from content providers, media sources in the home and communications companies. From the home, set-top boxes, home media servers, and storage repositories will give us access to those things we need, but that we don’t want to carry with us. Content providers will cover the broad spectrum of content and go well beyond the network TV programming we see now with an increasing amount of evolved YouTube-like programming, creating both video and audio podcasts for us to consume. I expect the device will be centrally managed and supported because the connection will be critical to the provider’s revenue stream.

Revenue Model: If one thing is clear this year it is that we are increasingly moving to an advertising-based, subsidized revenue model. The device will either be partially or entirely subsidized. This will open the door to corporations no longer buying PCs; rather, like they do with cell phones, they’ll provide ways for employees to purchase or acquire the technology themselves while providing connectivity into secure Web sites where the majority of task-based projects will be undertaken. This last should be in process in 2015; companies tend to move very slowly on new ideas like this. This will be a consumer pull event, much like the PDA and BlackBerry were, among executives and employees alike.

Power: A critical aspect of the device will be power and power management. Fuel cells are the likely power source because there isn’t anything in the near term that can put enough renewable energy into a small enough package to make the device practical. Battery advancements just aren’t coming fast enough and, at least for now, fuel cells offer the best opportunity for giving the off-plug performance the class needs.

Ancestors of the Future

The future ancestors to this new class are all over the map. A few of the more interesting will include:

Origami/UMPC: This platform under development by Microsoft/Intel/VIA is currently led by a device from Samsung that probably comes the closest in its class to meeting the requirements. The Q1 has a sharp black design, a relatively broad set of accessories, and a sharp screen. It is based on the incomplete Microsoft Origami software platform which, were it simplified and better tied to back end services, could be the future platform for devices like this — but both will have to mature a great deal to hit their potential.

Palm Treo: With an even better accessories set but too small in its current form the Palm Treo contains a stronger wireless solution and it can be had with both Microsoft and PalmOS configurations. Currently vastly more limited than the Origami is and with an aging hardware design on spec, it does the basics very well. Unfortunately the “basics” are growing beyond the platform as it currently exists very quickly. Palm will need to move sharply to not be left behind.

RIM BlackBerry: Pushing the design envelope a little harder, what has helped make the BlackBerry successful has been its focus on doing the basics well. However, as mentioned earlier, the category of basics is quickly moving to include broader communications and application support and RIM is currently being hit, back to back, by IP litigation which is distracting it from its own future. RIM may simply not be able to grow to address this opportunity.

Motorola “Q”: This is currently both the most advanced and most attractive device in the smartphone category. It has had a long road to market but, given the success of the Razr, may be the device to beat in 2006/2007. However, for 2015 it still has a long way to go. On the other hand it does showcase a level of design excellence only matched by Samsung. Motorola has done a nice job of moving ahead of the market of late.

HP products: Hewlett-Packard arguably has the best portfolio of products for the next generation. The firm has a smartphone, one of the most aggressive tablet PC designs, sells both thin-client devices and blade PCs, and is currently focused on building out its own high speed communications network. Its historic problem is pulling these resources together in time to lead a new market like this one. But, on paper, HP is unmatched in terms of sheer resources.

Cisco: This is more of a gut feel, but I think Cisco can see all of this coming and will enter the race before the end of the decade, likely after acquiring a vendor like Palm or RIM.

Hardware Contenders

Of the hardware providers I’d put HP, Samsung, and Motorola in the lead for the next-generation device of the future. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that all are using Microsoft platform products — specifically, Microsoft’s mobile platform and Origami. Both of these offer advantages, with Origami the more likely choice for this future device, that is, if Microsoft ever completes it.

Apple isn’t currently on the map, but it wasn’t on the map with MP3 players either until it dropped in and took over that market. While I believe Apple could develop the killer product for this new class, the firm doesn’t typically work well with others and the successful product will likely need to be subsidized — making working with others critical to the success of the offering. That’s a tough shortcoming for Apple to overcome.

Linux is on the wrong side of the user interface argument for this one. A next-generation OS and a lot of marketing coordination will be required to launch the device of the future, and at the moment, the Linux camp would appear to be unable to step up to that responsibility in a timely fashion.

This doesn’t mean that Linux couldn’t get there first, only that, if those folks do get there first, it probably will have more to do with the hardware company using the platform than anything done by open source developers. HP is the most capable of the vendors currently working heavily with Linux and the company has experimented with media center-like products before, but the platform’s time-to-market disadvantages have prevented any viable product from reaching the marketplace so far.

In conclusion, it looks to me like Microsoft has the best shot of owning the next-generation platform, but then IBM had the best shot at owning the PC market once, and we all know how that turned out. Let’s see if history repeats itself this time.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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