Wanted: Real Desktop Innovation

O the irony! The week that Apple introduces a new piece of desktop sculpture, IBM says goodbye to desktop manufacturing.

O the irony! The week that Apple introduces a new piece of desktop sculpture, IBM says goodbye to desktop manufacturing. For anyone who remembers the Apple vs. IBM desktop rivalries of the 80s, it was a pinch-me moment: This couldnt be real. And if that werent enough, during the same week, Gateways bonds were downgraded to junk status. Just how sick is the desktop, anyway—and should we care?

No, in that whats physically on the desktop is not of great relevance. Yes, in that desktop productivity matters and will continue to matter. Its not your desktop system but what you do with it that counts. Remember Visicalc? Everyone was wondering what to do with a PC until the first spreadsheet came along. The new iMac is striking, but is it only a reinterpretation of the box arm and panel paradigm of IBMs NetVista X? Well save our excitement for when business productivity is addressed. Here are some needs that cry out for real desktop innovation.

• Software quality. Hardware seldom breaks, but fragile software on a 2GHz processor merely crashes faster. The answer, we are repeatedly told, is to keep our maintenance fees current and upgrade obediently. This is not good enough. Buyers of software need the same rights that other consumers have. So were encouraged by a report from the National Academy of Sciences that recommends government sanctions against software vendors whose products are breached.

• Reasonable, lock-in-free licensing terms. Standard hardware was supposed to enable choice of software. The Microsoft monopoly and Software Assurance program have put a crimp in that, but as long as there is any competition at all from Linux and the Macintosh, there is at least hope.

• Access to corporate data. Most corporate desktop systems are really windows onto the corporate information system. Middleware standards such as XML, mediated by industry schema, are critical for progress here. Development tools from Borland, Oracle, Microsoft, IBM and others are crucial enabling technology. Ironically again, IBM can arguably do more for desktop productivity in this arena than in actually building desktop machines.

Just as Apples colorful desktops set off a wave of clumsy imitations, the hemisphere, angle and plane of the new iMac will likely give rise to an echo in the PC world. But if PC innovation focuses on nothing more than styling, the makers have only themselves to blame if their woes continue.