Legacy client apps could run in virtual machines that appear to the user to be part of the "OS," just as Mac users with VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop can run Windows and Linux apps as if they were Mac OS X-native today. (VMware Workstation and Parallels Workstation likewise let Windows and Linux users run multiple OSes on their systems.) Using VMs to support today's fat client approach would allow the "OS" to evolve without breaking the legacy apps, and let everyone move more quickly away from the fat client world we live in today -- one where, in Microsoft's case at least, OSes get much fatter each rev.
In this world, Adobe and Microsoft may be the new OS providers, supplemented by virtualization engines from Citrix's Xen unit, EMC's VMware unit, or Microsoft. Today's browsers may not be necessary, except as perhaps containers for bookmarks and other file management activities.
The wild card is Apple, which appears to have no strategy for the cloud other than offering application stores for downloading to its desktop and mobile client OSes. But there are hints in its vague goals for Mac OS X Snow Leopard, due in summer 2009, that Apple is considering a scalable OS that could operate in a streamed or mixed client/Web environment. Apple says it will make the next Mac OS X consume fewer resources, and its iPhone OS is already a subset of its Mac OS. But Apple has done nothing public involving virtualization, streaming, or RIA technologies -- the apparent foundations for the new PC order.
Whether Apple is part of the new desktop order, PCs would be essentially network-optimized thin clients that have enough memory and storage to run local apps in VMs or cached streams when disconnected from the Internet, but they wouldn't need a traditional OS to function.
Everyoneloves to predict the future. InfoWorld devised five possible scenarios for Microsoft after Bill Gates' retirement. Which do you believe in?
Think this is science fiction? A company called DeviceVM has an instant-on technology for Windows PCs that boots Linux first to run enable browsers to launch immediately. Windows follows along in its own sweet time. Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Lenovo are working on similar approaches -- marking a significant decoupling from the traditional client OS mentality. Microsoft says it is investigating a similar concept, using a subset of Windows to run browsers and so on before the whole OS loads. As more apps are browser-delivered, people may find they can get by without the full OS. By the same token, PC makers could make loading the whole OS an option at startup.