As more apps move off Windows, a "well managed" desktop is worth less and less.

One of the sad ironies of our lives as desktop support folks is that now that we're finally getting really good at managing Windows, being good at it matters less and less with each passing year.

One of the sad ironies of our lives as desktop support folks is that now that we're finally getting really good at managing Windows, being good at it matters less and less with each passing year.

As an industry, we've been managing Microsoft Windows desktops for going on 20 years, and if you really look at it, we're pretty much doing it the same today as we have been all along. (Image a machine, push out software, patches, and updates. Install applications as needed. Configure profiles and policies. Run some AV. Done.)

The world was a different place when we started this. When I got involved in IT in 1995, it's fair to say that all of our users' apps were Windows desktop apps. (Well, maybe there were some mainframe and Unix apps, but we accessed them via Windows apps like AttachMate Extra and Hummingbird eXceed.) Our biggest headaches back then were things like PointCast and corrupted Oracle TNSNAMES files. But once we got those figured out, then we were set. We could manage 100% of a user's environment via their Windows desktop.

In the early 2000s, Windows desktop apps started to be replaced by web apps. At first these were simple websites and Java apps we ran internally, but eventually we started to buy access to external web apps run as services. We still managed Windows desktops, though by now having a perfectly managed desktop only gave us maybe 80% of a user's application set. (The other 20% was making sure the user knew their logins to the external web apps, making sure users had shortcuts to the sites they needed, etc.)

By the late 2000s we started to see mobile apps (for both phones and tablets) take hold. We saw the overall percentage of Windows apps decline (in terms of the overall number of apps users needed). A well-managed desktop meant was only good for maybe 50% of a user's total application set.

Today that number is even lower. Between internal web apps, phone and tablet apps, and SaaS subscriptions, traditionally-installed Windows desktop applications in today's world represent only a small fraction of the total apps that users need today.

In addition to apps, we can say the same thing about data and configuration settings. More and more enterprises are moving towards Dropbox-like file syncing products. We have to manage user settings and preferences across all these types of apps. In 1995, a user's Windows domain account was their password for everything. Today's domain accounts are probably only used for half of the apps out there. (Sure, we can use ADFS to extend our users' AD accounts to the world, but how many of us actually do that? Many of today's enterprise end users have to manage multiple user accounts with multiple logins. At TechTarget I can use my AD account for my desktop, my file shares, our VPN, Exchange, SharePoint, our intranet, and our helpdesk. But the company has also provided me with separate logins for my corporate Verizon account, Concur, ThinkStock, Dropbox,, the server, the user account I'm using to post to this blog, the TechTarget Search sites, Brightcove, Taptera, the Adobe Cloud, American Express, Chartbeat, Google, and probably several others I'm forgetting. (And this is just the accounts for the applications that TechTarget provides. There are probably another 20 or 30 that I use on my own.)

So what's this all mean?

  • In 1995, a well-managed Windows desktop meant that 100% of users' applications were managed.
  • By the early 2000s, this was down to maybe 50%.
  • Today a well-managed Windows desktop might only catch 10-20% of the entire end-user environment.

There's no reason to assume this trend will stop. To be clear, I'm not saying that you should give up on managing Windows desktops. It's just that in the old days a well-managed desktop was synonymous to a well-managed user environment. Today that's just not the case. (Cue sad trombone.)

Earlier this year I wrote that at some point, we'll pass the inflection point where we don't want to manage all the "gunk" of Windows just to manage a few apps. While that's certainly true, it's probably a few years off. In the meantime we have to recognize that, even today, a "desktop" strategy is not enough. Having a well-managed desktop no longer means we have a well-managed user environment. And it's only going to get worse from here.

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We did a joint BriForum session a few years ago where I said we'd still be using Windows 7 in 2020. I still think that is true for the vast majority of enterprise customers who will evolve slowly.

Sure the percentage of applications that are traditional Windows applicaitons will go down, but I doubt the aggregate number of apps and associated service offerings will go down. Experience shows things rarely go away, we just have to deal with more stuff. :-) To deal with all this additional complexity, IMO IT will have to evolve to partner with the business to provide multiple tiers of service. This will include managing desktops love them or hate them. As Windows 7 migration budgets go away I don't see a material reduction in budget for managing the desktop. As a result I expect this budget to continue being used to drive more efficiency and automation. I.E better management to deliver multiple tiers of service.