shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
The Fusing of Desktops And Servers
1/27/2000

Windows2000, just beginning to ship, and slated for a high profile launch next 
month, will fundamentally alter the nature of Windows' competition with Linux, its 
only real competitor. Up until now, this competition has focused on two separate 
spheres: servers and desktops. In the server arena, Linux is largely thought to have 
the upper hand over WindowsNT, with a smaller installed base but much faster growth. 
On the desktop, though, Linux's success as a server has had as yet little effect, and 
the ubiquity of Windows remains unchallenged. With the launch of Windows2000, the 
battle will no longer be fought in two separate arenas, because just as rising chip 
power destroyed the distinction between PCs and "workstations," growing connectivity 
is destroying the distinction between the desktop and the server. All operating 
systems are moving in this direction, but the first one to catch the average customer's 
eye will rock the market.  
 
The fusion of desktop and server, already underway, is turning the internet inside 
out. The current network is built on a "content in the center" architecture, where a 
core of always-on, always-connected servers provides content on demand to a much larger 
group of PCs which only connect to the net from time to time (mostly to request content, 
rarely to provide it). With the rise of faster and more stable PCs, however, the ability 
for a desktop machine to take on the work of a server increases annually. In addition, 
the newer networking services like cable modems and DSL offer "always on" connectivity -- 
instead of dialing up, their connection to the internet is (at least theoretically) 
persistent. Add to these forces an increasing number of PCs in networked offices and 
dorms, and you have the outlines of a new "content at the edges" architecture. This 
architecture is exemplified by software like Napster or Hotline, designed for sharing 
MP3s, images, and other files from one PC to another without the need for a central 
server. In the Napster model, the content resides on the PCs at the edges of the net, 
and the center is only used for bit-transport. In this "content at the edges" system, 
the old separation between desktop and server vanishes, with the PC playing both 
functions at different times. This is the future, and Microsoft knows it.

In the same way Windows95 had built-in dial-up software, Windows2000 has a built-in Web 
server. The average user has terrible trouble uploading files, but would like to use the 
web to share their resumes, recipes, cat pictures, pirated music, amateur porn, and 
powerpoint presentations, so Microsoft wants to make running a web server with 
Windows2000 as easy as establishing a dialup connection was with Windows95. In addition 
to giving Microsoft potentially huge competitive leverage over Linux, this desktop/server 
combo will also allow them to better compete with the phenomenally successful Apache web 
server and give them a foothold for making Microsoft Word leverage over HTML as the 
chosen format for web documents -- as long as both sender and receiver are running 
Windows2000.

The Linux camp's response to this challenge is unclear. Microsoft has typically 
employed an "attack from below" strategy, using incremental improvements to an 
initially inferior product to erode a competitor's advantage. Linux has some defenses 
against this strategy -- the Open Source methodology gives Linux the edge in incremental 
improvements, and the fact that Linux is free gives Microsoft no way to win a "price 
vs. features" comparison -- but the central fact remains that as desktop computers 
become servers as well, Microsoft's desktop monopoly will give them a huge advantage, 
if they can provide (or even claim to provide) a simple and painless upgrade. Windows2000 
has not been out long, it is not yet being targeted at the home user, and developments 
on the Linux front are coming thick and fast, but the battle lines are clear: The fusing 
of the functions of desktop and server represents Microsoft's best (and perhaps last) 
chance to prevent Linux from toppling its monopoly.


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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source