A reduced but important future for desktop computing

Josh Marinacci: 90% will rely on mobile, but 10% will still need desktops.

Josh Marinacci (@joshmarinacci), blogger and co-author of “Swing Hacks,” sees a near-term future where the majority of computer users will be served by mobile devices, but advanced users — the 10% who need power, speed and UI flexibility — will continue to rely on a desktop experience. In the following interview, Marinacci discusses the mobile transition and what it means for desktop devices and software.

One of your upcoming OSCON sessions will explore how future desktop applications may no longer be the default, but they’ll still be important to advanced users — who are these advanced users?

Josh MarinacciJosh Marinacci: I think that in less than a decade, 90% of people will use a smartphone or tablet as their primary computing interface. They might have some shared computer with a keyboard for when they need to type in a long essay, but almost all of their time will be spent on these smaller devices. It will simply meet their needs better than a traditional PC. (When I say “PC,” I mean desktops and laptops with a traditional OS, like Windows or Mac OS X or Linux).

However, the remaining 10% need something more. These are the people whose jobs are to create and process significant amounts of information. Think designers, software engineers, project managers, pro photographers, professional authors, etc. These people need the physical assets of a traditional computer: high-speed input and output through a large monitor and physical keyboard. They also need the processing power and UI flexibility provided by a traditional desktop OS. It would seem like a lot of people should fall into this category, but I really think it’s only about 10%. Most people will be better served by things like iPads.

How will current desktop applications need to change to accommodate advanced users?

Josh Marinacci: The needs of users, as well as the computational power of our computers, has grown tremendously over the past few decades. Desktop interfaces, however, haven’t changed since the mid-’90s because most of the industry’s focus has been on mobility and the web. I want to see that change.

I think there are three core places where current interfaces fail: customization, automation, and scaling to large amounts. Advanced users need to customize their tools to efficiently handle workflows. The few attempts at interface customization, like the toolbar in MS Office, have failed miserably. I think we need some new approaches to the problem.

Automation seems like a given. Once a user has customized the interface to do particular tasks, they will likely benefit from making those tasks repeatable. Sadly, almost no software does this outside of the programming domain. Adobe’s Creative Suite and MS Office have almost no support for automation outside of complex macros, which require a full understanding of programming to be effective. Mac OS X’s Automator seems promising, but Apple is moving away from it with the new locked-down Mountain Lion OS X.

Finally, the core interfaces of desktop GUIs — lists, folders, and buttons — simply don’t scale to the massive amounts of information the modern desktop user has to process. Probably the best example of an app that tackles the problem is iTunes. The average user’s music library is far too big to effectively manage as files, so iTunes has to introduce essentially a baby version of SQL for creating saved searches. I suspect we will see more interfaces along these lines.

Will browser-based applications be enough, or do you foresee a continuation of installed software?

Josh Marinacci: For both security and power reasons, I think we will still see installed software. HTML5 enables web apps to do a whole lot, but locally-installed apps will always be able to do more. I don’t think it’s an either/or situation, though. Successful apps will be a hybrid of the two, combining the power of local resources with the connectivity of remote web services. And remember, the web doesn’t just mean HTML. The programmatic web can be accessed by desktop apps just as easily as web apps.

How do you see desktop applications intersecting with mobile?

Josh Marinacci: I’m happy to see desktop apps become more attractive and easier to use, but I worry that we will go too far. The curated non-multitasking experience of an iPad is not a good fit for a desktop OS, at least not all the time. I want to be able to install any software I choose, regardless of whether it fits the platform’s App Store restrictions. Given what we’ve seen of Windows 8 and Mountain Lion, I am worried that our laptops will become iPads with keyboards. This is a place where I see open source providing a great benefit.

Your session description also mentions “an example application that combines the best of the desktop and the web, and explores the UI toolkit used to build it.” Can you offer a preview of that and explain some of the specifics?

Josh Marinacci: I’ve been working on a vector drawing tool for the past two years called Leonardo Sketch. Recently, I’ve been been working on a lot of features that demonstrate my philosophy of desktop app design. A drawing program is a place of creation. The creator needs the ability to greatly customize the experience, manage the things created within it, as well as access the outside world. Leo Sketch does this through a series of plugins. Some let you share what you are working on directly to Flickr and Twitter. Others let you organize your drawing assets (fonts, color palettes, reusable symbols) without dealing with file directories. I have a lot of other ideas that are just in the prototyping phase that I plan to share with the audience at OSCON.

Why do you think now is the time to talk about changes in desktop apps rather than 10 years ago or 10 years from now?

Josh Marinacci: When photography was invented, it replaced 90% of what painters did: recreate reality. While it made a lot of unemployed painters, it also freed them to explore new areas of painting that weren’t about recreating reality. There was an explosion of new ideas in the 100 years after the invention of photography. Things like impressionism and cubism never would have happened if most painters were still doing portraits of rich patrons. I think this change in desktop computing is happening now because mobile devices are taking over 90% of what desktop computers have done. This frees up desktop interfaces to focus on new and interesting things.

Who will build these new kinds of applications? What sort of business models will they have?

Josh Marinacci: I suspect these new kinds of apps will come from small companies. In the mobile app store, your app has to be cheap and sell tens of thousands of copies just to break even. In this new smaller desktop market, an app can be profitable with far fewer copies because advanced users are willing to pay more. They will invest in their tools if their tools are good. I’ve paid $20 for a to-do list manager because I need to manage a lot of lists. No list manager on a smartphone could sell for that. On the other hand, advanced users are more demanding. They care more about quality and service — junk apps simply won’t fly the way they can on smartphones.

Can these ideas offer any guidance to Apple, Microsoft, and the desktop Linux vendors?

Josh Marinacci: I’m worried that an ecosystem one-tenth the size of the current desktop market will be uninteresting to Microsoft and Apple. They will continue to make the desktop computing experience more mobile-like in an effort to please the larger market. This is where I think the desktop Linux vendors can really shine. Since they aren’t as dependent on direct profit, they can thrive in a smaller market (which is still less than 10% today). However, this means they should focus on the needs of advanced users, not on trying to make a desktop that everyone in the world can use.

This interview was edited and condensed. Associated photo on home and category pages: High Schoolers workstation by jordan.deloach, on Flickr

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