The Future of the Desktop

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I have spent the last year really thinking about the future of the Web. But lately I have been thinking more about the future of the desktop. In particular, here are some questions I am thinking about and some answers I’ve come up so far.

(Author’s Note: This is a raw, first-draft of what I think it will be like. Please forgive any typos — I am still working on this and editing it…)

What Will Happen to the Desktop?

As we enter the third decade of the Web we are seeing an increasing shift from local desktop applications towards Web-hosted software-as-a-service (SaaS). The full range of standard desktop office tools (word processors, spreadsheets, presentation tools, databases, project management, drawing tools, and more) can now be accessed as Web-hosted apps within the browser. The same is true for an increasing range of enterprise applications. This process seems to be accelerating.

As more kinds of applications become available in Web-based form, the Web browser is becoming the primary framework in which end-users work and interact. But what will happen to the desktop? Will it too eventually become a Web-hosted application? Will the Web browser swallow up the desktop? Where is the desktop headed?

Is the desktop of the future going to just be a web-hosted version of the same old-fashioned desktop metaphors we have today?

No. There have already been several attempts at doing this — and they never catch on. People don’t want to manage all their information on the Web in the same interface they use to manage data and apps on their local PC.

Partly this is due to the difference in user experience between using files and folders on a local machine and doing that in “simulated” fashion via some Flash-based or HTML-based imitation of a desktop. Imitations desktops to-date have simply been clunky and slow imitations of the real-thing at best. Others have been overly slick. But one thing they all have in common: None of them have nailed it. The desktop of the future – what some have called “the Webtop” – still has yet to be invented.

It’s going to be a hosted web service

Is the desktop even going to exist anymore as the Web becomes increasingly important? Yes, there will have to be some kind of interface that we consider to be our personal “home” and “workspace” — but ultimately it will have to be a unified space that all our devices connect to and share. This requires that it be a hosted online service.

Currently we have different information spaces on different devices (laptop, mobile device, PC). These will merge. Native local clients could be created for various devices, but ultimately the simplest and therefore most likely choice is to just use the browser as the client. This coming “Webtop” will provide an interface to your local devices, applications and information, as well as to your online life and information.

Today we think of our Web browser running inside our desktop as an applicaiton. But actually it will be the other way around in the future: Our desktop will run inside our browser as an application.

Instead of the browser running inside, or being launched from, some kind of next-generation desktop web interface technology, it’s will be the other way around: The browser will be the shell and the desktop application will run within it either as a browser add-in, or as a web-based application.

The Web 3.0 desktop is going to be completely merged with the Web — it is going to be part of the Web. In fact there may eventually be no distinction between the desktop and the Web anymore.

The focus shifts from information to attention

As our digital lives shift from being focused on the old fashioned desktop to the Web environment we will see a shift from organizing information spatially (directories, folders, desktops, etc.) to organizing information temporally (feeds, lifestreams, microblogs, timelines, etc.).

Instead of being just a directory, the desktop of the future is going to be more like a feed reader or social news site. The focus will be on keeping up with all the stuff flowing in and out of the user’s environment. The interface will be tuned to help the user understand what the trends are, rather than just on how things are organized.

The focus will be on helping the user to manage their attention rather than just their information. This is a leap to the meta-level: A second-order desktop. Instead of just being about the information (the first-order), it is going to be about what is happening with the information (the second-order).

Users are going to shift from acting as librarians to acting as daytraders.

Our digital roles are already shifting from acting as librarians to becoming more like daytraders. In the PC era we were all focused on trying to manage the stuff on our computers — in other words, we were acting as librarians. But this is going to shift. Librarians organize stuff, but daytraders are focused on discovering and keeping track of trends. It’s a very different focus and activity, and it’s what we are all moving towards.

We are already spending more of our time keeping up with change and detecting trends, than on organizing information. In the coming decade the shelf-life of information is going to become vanishingly short and the focus will shift from storage and recall to real-time filtering, trend detection and prediction.

The Webtop will be more social and will leverage and integrate collective intelligence

The Webtop is going to be more socially oriented than desktops of today — it will have built-in messaging and social networking, as well as social-media sharing, collaborative filtering, discussions, and other community features.

The social dimension of our lives is becoming perhaps our most important source of information. We get information via email from friends, family and colleagues. We get information via social networks and social media sharing services. We co-create information with others in communities.

The social dimension is also starting to play a more important role in our information management and discovery activities. Instead of those activities remaining as solitary, they are becoming more communal. For example many social bookmarking and social news sites use community sentiment and collaborative filtering to help to highlight what is most interesting, useful or important.

It’s going to have powerful semantic search and social search capabilities built-in

The Webtop is going to have more powerful search built-in. This search will combine both social and semantic search features. Users will be able to search their information and rank it by social sentiment (for example, “find documents about x and rank them by how many of my friends liked them.”)

Semantic search will enable highly granular search and navigation of information along a potentially open-ended range of properties and relationships.

For example you will be able to search in a highly structured way — for example, search for products you once bookmarked that have a price of $10.95 and are on-sale this week. Or search for documents you read which were authored by Sue and related to project X, in the last month.

The semantics of the future desktop will be open-ended. That is to say that users as well as other application and information providers will be able to extend it with custom schemas, new data types, and custom fields to any piece of information.

Interactive shared spaces instead of folders

Forget about shared folders — that is an outmoded paradigm. Instead, the  new metaphor will be interactive shared spaces.

The need for shared community space is currently being provided for online by forums, blogs, social network profile pages, wikis, and new community sites. But as we move into Web 3.0 these will be replaced by something that combines their best features into one. These next-generation shared spaces will be like blogs, wikis, communities, social networks, databases, workspaces and search engines in one.

Any group of two or more individuals will be able to participate in a shared space that connects their desktops for a particular purpose. These new shared spaces will not only provide richer semantics in the underlying data, social network, and search, but they will also enable groups to seamlessly and collectively add, organize, track, manage, discuss, distribute, and search for information of mutual interest.

The personal cloud

The future desktop will function like a “personal cloud” for users. It will connect all their identities, data, relationships, services and activities in one virtual integrated space. All incoming and outgoing activity will flow through this space. All applications and services that a user makes use of will connect to it.

The personal cloud may not have a center, but rather may be comprised of many separate sub-spaces, federated around the Web and hosted by different service-providers. Yet from an end-user perspective it will function as a seamlessly integrated service. Users will be able to see and navigate all their information and applications, as if they were in one connected space, regardless of where they are actually hosted. Users will be able to search their personal cloud from any point within it.

Open data, linked data and open-standards based semantics

The underlying data in the future desktop, and in all associated services it connects, will be represented using open-standard data formats. Not only will the data be open, but the semantics of the data – the schema – will also be defined in an open way. The emerigng Semantic Web provides a good infrastructure for enabling this to happen.

The value of open linked-data and open semantics is that data will not be held prisoner anywhere and can easily be integrated with other data.

Users will be able to seamlessly move and integrate their data, or parts of their data, in different services. This means that your Webtop might even be portable to a different competing Webtop provider someday. If and when that becomes possible, how will Webtop providers compete to add value?

It’s going to be smart

One of the most important aspects of the coming desktop is that it’s going to be smart. It’s going to learn and help users to be more productive. Artificial intelligence is one of the key ways that competing Webtop providers will differentiate their offerings.

As you use it, it’s going to learn about your interests, relationships, current activities, information and preferences. It will adaptively self-organize to help you focus your attention on what is most important to whatever context you are in.

When reading something while you are taking a trip to Milan it may organize itself to be more contextually relevant to that time, place and context. When you later return home to San Francisco it will automatically adapt and shift to your home context. When you do a lot of searches about a certain product it will realize your context and intent has to do with that product and will adapt to help you with that activity for a while, until your behavior changes.

Your desktop will actually be a semantic knowledge base on the back-end. It will encode a rich semantic graph of your information, relationships, interests, behavior and preferences. You will be able to permit other applications to access part or all of your graph to datamine it and provide you with value-added views and even automated intelligent assistance.

For example, you might allow an agent that cross-links things to see all your data: it would go and add cross links to relevant things onto all the things you have created or collected. Another agent that makes personalized buying recommendations might only get to see your shopping history across all shopping sites you use.

Your desktop may also function as a simple personal assistant at times. You will be able to converse with your desktop eventually — through a conversational agent interface. While on the road you will be able to email or SMS in questions to it and get back immediate intelligent answers. You will even be able to do this via a voice interface.

For example, you might ask, “where is my next meeting?” or “what Japanese restaurants do I like in LA?” or “What is Sue’s Smith’s phone number?” and you would get back answers. You could also command it to do things for you — like reminding you to do something, or helping you keep track of an interest, or monitoring for something and alerting you when it happens.

Because your future desktop will connect all the relationships in your digital life — relationships connecting people, information, behavior, prefences and applications — it will be the ultimate place to learn about your interests and preferences.

Federated, open policies and permissions

This rich graph of meta-data that comprises your future desktop will enable the next-generation of smart services to learn about you and help you in an incredibly personalized manner. It will also of course be rife with potential for abuse and privacy will be a major function and concern.

One of the biggest enabling technologies that will be necessary is a federated model for sharing meta-data about policies and permissions on data. Information that is considered to be personal and private in Web site X should be recognized and treated as such by other applications and websites you choose to share that information with. This will require a way for sharing meta-data about your policies and permissions between different accounts and applicaitons you use.

The semantic web provides a good infrastructure for building and deploying a decentralized framework for policy and privacy integration, but it has yet to be developed, let alone adopted. For the full vision of the future desktop to emerge a universally accepted standard for exchanging policy and permission data will be a necessary enabling technology.

Who is most likely to own the future desktop?

When I think about what the future desktop is going to look like it seems to be a convergence of several different kinds of services that we currently view as separate.

It will be hosted on the cloud and accessible across all devices. It will place more emphasis on social interaction, social filtering, and collective intelligence. It will provide a very powerful and extensible data model with support for both unstructured and arbitrarily structured information. It will enable almost peer-to-peer like search federation, yet still have a unified home page and user-experience. It will be smart and personalized. It will be highly decentralized yet will manage identity, policies and permissions in an integrated cohesive and transparent manner across services.

By cobbling together a number of different services that exist today you could build something like this in a decentralized fashion. Is that how the desktop of the future will come about? Or will it be a new application provided by one player with a lot of centralized market power? Or could an upstart suddently emerge with the key enabling technologies to make this possible? It’s hard to predict, but one thing is certain: It will be an interesting process to watch.