There’s a lot going on in the world of IT at the moment. An explosion of internet enabled devices has been pushing the limits of the networks, driving the need for more address space (IPv6), substantial bandwidth upgrades, and changes to the very architecture of the internet.
The address space issue has been evident, and its impact clear for quite some time now, but what’s really interesting about what’s happening at the moment is the shift we’re seeing from the traditional, inherently open internet architecture and x86 based PC’s, to the more rationalised and corporate owned nature of ‘cloud’ computing and mobile (mostly ARM based) devices. Now I’m not going to get into which side of the net neutrality debate I sit, rather, I want to examine some of the causes and possible outcomes of this shift.
First of all, I think it’s important to understand what’s actually happening with the content available on the internet. If you consider content not just to be media, but also any software available as a service (after all, the data that drives software is by definition content), it is evident that a large proportion of the content that we consume is being increasingly delivered by fewer market leaders in their respective areas. This is being enabled by these companies building out massive data centres around the globe, and the use of Content Delivery Networks. This is in effect, creating ‘channels’ upon which these companies are able to get content to users much quicker. Those same channels however, have the potential to start carving up the internet, based upon content type.
So what’s driving this? Many views are available for discussion in this arena, and heated debates are frequent. From my point of view as both a consumer and an IT professional, I can see a few things going on. If you think about the history of computing, up until quite recently, there were two things that dominated all aspects of it – x86 hardware and Microsoft software. For a long time, Microsoft owned virtually the whole ecosystem, and squashed any potential competition attempting to enter the race. This left only one (now fairly obvious) option. Build your own ecosystem.
The traditional ecosystem at this point was based around the desktop PC, with the majority of content being generated locally, with fairly slow connectivity to the internet. Apple were the first to see the potential to create a brand new ecosystem of their own when they set up iTunes and iPods. This move leveraged people’s desire for fresh content and their love for slick looking gadgets in one single master stroke, and set the ball rolling for everyone else.
On the open and neutral internet, where natural human ideology favours the little guy and frowns upon the corporation, a ball rolling is the wrong analogy. Flood gates would be better. And what spawned was not just new ecosystems based around music or video, or other traditional media, but also new ways of delivering rich software experiences without ever needing to install software on the local PC. Now that these new disruptive models are beginning to settle in (under the very ambiguous term of ‘cloud’), we’re also seeing a convergence of faster networking, both mobile and fixed line, and a plethora of consumer devices that don’t use x86 hardware or Microsoft software.
So where is this all heading you ask. I don’t claim to know the future, but there are some distinct elements about all of this that I can have a pretty good guess at. One thing I take issue with is the constant talk of Microsoft being in trouble. Challenging times ahead? No doubt. But trouble? This implies that they’re on a fast track to bankruptcy, and I’m sorry, but this just isn’t going to happen. Microsoft has its fingers in so many pies (XBOX alone made it ~$600m profit in a single quarter), and historically its always been about acquiring and improving other peoples ideas and strategies (look at the Skype acquisition recently). They’ve just released Windows Phone 7 (which is remarkably good), there’s talk of Windows 8 supporting ARM based devices, and they are working hard towards making all of there software work well in ‘the cloud’. They may never be the unstoppable behemoth they once were, but they’ll be here for a long time yet.
Another element is the importance of mobile. It’s very important. The usage statistics available suggest that mobile traffic now accounts for %5 of all internet usage (up from %4 from end of last year), and websites like Twitter report that %50 percent of their total is mobile use. We’re not just talking about mobile phones here though, we talking about non-x86 devices essentially. Devices that aren’t running traditional Windows/OSX/Linux. We’re talking about iOS/Android/WP7, and any other new upstart OS that’s slick enough to grab market share in this new space.
But lets take a step back for a moment. What are we really talking about? I’ve heard a lot of talk about the death of the desktop as a result of all this. But what do we mean by desktop? To me, desktop is a form factor, it’s not a CPU/OS combination. The use cases for desktop and mobile are very different. I don’t want to play a game, or manipulate a massive spreadsheet on a phone or a tablet. The screen is too small and the input method is inefficient. The desktop is by no means dead, but we may see the number of people using it reduce, as they realise that their particular use case does not require the big screen/mouse/keyboard combination.
So if the desktop itself is not dead, what about the architecture delivering that distinctly desktop experience? That’s a much harder thing to predict, and it depends greatly upon how successful ‘the cloud’ ultimately becomes. If such services as OnLive and Google Docs can really prove to be as good running in a data centre as having the software installed locally on your machine, then the relevence of Moore’s law and software compatibility will move away from the desktop, and we will be able to run whatever CPU/OS combination we want and still all consume the same content and services.
That is of course the technological vision driving cloud computing; platform agnosticism, and a unified experience between systems. We’re some way from that goal yet, and I suspect there will be a lot of painful lessons to be learned along the way, but it’s a goal worth heading towards nonetheless.
One last thought springs to mind. Let’s not forget the other thing driving change right now. Control. The old ways of computing typically put control in the hands of the end user. Everything I’ve seen in the last few years in cloud computing and mobile is about trying to move that control to back towards the vendor. To my mind, this isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing, indeed many people have never wanted control in the first place. It is cause for caution though. If we hand too much power over to any particular vendor we may find ourselves back in Windows95land, and who wants that? Not I.
** UPDATE – I came across this article at CNET today that really illustrates my point about the general failure of many commentators to differenciate between system architectures and form factors. The comments section is also quite interesting. **