Still looking forward to the promise of the converged desktop

One of the most exciting days I had at work was the day I came into the office, sat down at my desk, logged into my PC…and there in glorious detail were all my emails, voice mails (with pictures of the senders and text describing content), instant messages and all my social media feeds.

All my communications in one place, and easy to manage. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. That was back in 1989 (I was only joking about the social media, which obviously didn’t exist back then). I was co-running a telephony lab for IBM and, sadly, a few months later transferred to another IBM site. They took away my PC and gave me a color terminal, and I was back to the dark ages – they were literally dark, because my new, larger office had no window and I felt like I was in prison.

Back at ROLM we were even working on integrated desktop video, integration with the security and fire alarm systems, and PCs with the phones built into them. My configuration was based on a board you put into a PC, but an alternative configuration looked like an old Mac, with a bigger screen and an integrated phone.

So, what happened?

Instead of integration, things have degraded.

We now have two phones (cell and desktop) that generally don’t talk to each other. We have tablets and PCs that don’t talk to each other. And many of us have multiple PCs.

Instead of one device that gracefully integrates our communication, we have a mini-IT department of stuff that sometimes synchronizes…depending on the app.

Let’s talk about what happened to this compelling, converged future.

Telephony and technology

We’ve seen several attempts to integrate telephony and technology. The biggest were the merger of IBM and ROLM, and the merger of AT&T and NCR. The problem back then was that the two markets and technologies seemed very similar but, in fact, were very different. They even had the same acronyms refer to different things. But customers for telephone systems tended to be with different departments than those for computer systems. Computers were about performance, bandwidth and I/O. Telephony was about uptime and extremely low latency. 

Now you could argue that Apple likely got the closest thing we’ve had to a converged experience with the iPhone, which is basically a PC for your hand with integrated telephony. So, it seems obvious that if you could find a way to grow that device, maybe it could fill the gap.

The Modular PC

Ironically, it was IBM again – a few years after they sold ROLM to Siemens (and Siemens killed it) – that came up with the idea of the Modular PC.  They also came up with the first smartphone, the Simon, years earlier.

The idea was a device that could be a phone when carried with a small screen, and PC capability that could be accessorized to become anything from a tablet to a desktop computer. Sadly, this came at a time when IBM was cutting back massively on desktop investment (they eventually sold off the division to Lenovo) and this project was cut.

Initially, though, there were issues with the common problem that to get to scale, you needed more than one vendor in the segment, and a processor that could do both low power and high performance. Even storage was an issue, because this was pre-SSDs – the micro drive had yet to be invented.

Since then, this has been tried several more times by vendors ranging from Motorola to Asus. But the idea has never gained traction, largely because each effort has been single-vendor and not industry-backed. No one vendor has the power to get to critical mass, except maybe Apple, and the closest thing they have is the iPad Pro and it isn’t that close.

SunRay

One of the most compelling desktops ever delivered was the Sun SunRay. This was the most successful of the initial large-company attempts to really redefine the desktop experience. The most compelling part was that you could use any SunRay client device, put in your smart ID card, and get your entire desktop, with state preserved, anyplace in the world. While they never really integrated telephony, and this mostly grew up before smartphones, this any-device thing could have been huge. But, once again, it was Sun only, performance sucked and, rather than lifting Sun to new heights, the effort likely contributed to the failure of the firm. Thin client implementations still exist – I’ll talk about one in my next column – but they remain both decidedly free of telephony and relatively unique and generally go into into focused environments.  

Continuum

Perhaps the biggest attempt in recent times was Microsoft Continuum. This promised to take a smartphone and allow it to scale, using a blend of local and cloud resources, to PC-type uses.  Apps would scale up and down with the screen size, and the phone would effectively become part of the way you’d authenticate into the company network.  Integrated digital assistant – Cortana in this case – and the ability to continue work unabated from your desktop to your smartphone or tablet were promised.

This was also potentially multi-vendor, because it was to go into the regular PC channel. But to work, the Windows Phone had to be successful – and Microsoft under-executed massively on their phone effort.  They responded late to the iPhone, they failed to capture the interest of developers and they moved too slowly to buy Nokia and scale the effort. The whole Windows Phone effort was defined as too little, too late. 

The future will be in the cloud

There are several cloud telephone services. I use one myself called OOMA. These cloud services increasingly are the source of most of what we have on the desktop – at least those of us who work for small companies and/or are remote workers. It’s a handy service if you have a home office, a vacation house or have to move. You just take the Ooma box along, and your desktop phone numbers move with you.

In addition, we still have several thin client players in the market as well. The performance of that solution has increased to the point where you can legitimately do high-performance desktop computing using one. Eventually, one of these should – as they expand their offerings – realize that telephony could be another cloud app and that integrating all messaging into an offering could be extremely compelling.  Thanks to years of working on convergence, the parts and APIs are mostly all there – it’ll just take someone with a vision, and a budget, to put them all together. 

The converged future of the desktop is still calling us. We are just waiting for a vendor with enough vision, budget and a willingness to fully execute to pick up the line.  

Funny story

I’ll leave you with a funny story on that old Mac-like PC with the phone. They weren’t the most reliable things and they were expensive, so they typically went to executives. We got a repair request from one of those executives at a bank and sent out one of our repair folks. He arrived when the executive was out to lunch. When the executive came back he found a sticky note on his phone/PC that said something to the effect of: “looked all over the office for your phone, couldn’t find it, give me a yell when you’re back in the office.”

We thought that was pretty funny. The executive, whose $3.5K phone didn’t work (that’s $7K in today’s dollars), not so much.

[Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author]

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