What the Windows desktop will look like in 2015: Brian's vision of the future

In this article I look at what a corporate Windows desktop will look like in five years. (Hint: it's still Windows-based and the "cloud" doesn't impact it in the way you might think it would.)

In this article I look at what a corporate Windows desktop will look like in five years. (Hint: it's still Windows-based and the "cloud" doesn't impact it in the way you might think it would.)

Our future includes Windows and Windows apps

Let's be perfectly clear about one thing right off the bat. The future of desktops is the future of Windows. You can talk all you want about Mac and Linux and Rich Internet Apps and The Cloud and Java and Web 3.0, but the reality is that from the corporate standpoint, we live in a world of Windows apps. The applications are what drive business, and as long as those apps are Windows apps then we're going to have to deal with Windows desktops.

Even though those new technologies might be better in every way, there's a lot of momentum of Windows apps we need to overturn to move away from Windows. I mean just think about how many 16-bit Windows apps are out there now even though 32-bit Windows has been out for fifteen years. Heck, look at how many terminal apps are still out there! I like to joke that if we ever have a nuclear holocaust, the only things that will survive will be cockroaches, Twinkies, and Windows apps.

That said, I love the concept of a world of apps that aren't Windows apps (and therefore I love the concept of a world without Windows.) I love the rich Internet app concept. I love how Apple is shaking things up. I think VMware's purchase of SpringSource was pure brilliance and I can't wait to see that app platform and Azure duke it out.

But in the meantime we're dealing with Windows apps. And Windows apps require a Windows OS. (We tried without.) The unfortunate reality is that the Windows OS was designed to be a single monolithic brick that is installed and run on a single computer for a single user with a single set of apps.

The Windows desktop of 2015: Assumptions

First, I'm assuming that the whole "layering" thing gets worked out. (If you're not familiar with the concept, here's an overview of "layering," and technical explanation of why it's a hard problem to solve.) The short version is we want to convert Windows away from a single monolithic chuck and towards several nice pieces that can be assembled in different combinations for different users on different hardware. This will require some kind of mechanical layering solution, like Atlantis, Unidesk, MokaFive, etc.

desktop layers

Second, I'm assuming that our app virtualization or app streaming compatibility problems are solved and that we end up with near 100% compatibility (through a combination of better tools, better apps, and a stronger understanding of how to isolate and deal with problem apps.

Third, I'm assuming that we have mature user environment management products that can handle just about anything a user does or changes during his or her session.

I feel that these three assumptions are fine for 2015. Frankly I think we have most of these here now (each from multiple vendors even) in 2010, so being able to call these three things "solved" by 2015 should be no problem.

How these layers will work in 2015

So now that we understand the concept of layers and we assume the mechanical ability to isolate the various layers will work in 2015, let's look at how each of these layers will be used in the future.

The OS layer

In today's world, the Windows OS is downloaded as a huge chunk and then installed. The installation process has some intelligence about which files are actually needed, and it writes some configuration information so Windows is able to boot and run on the specific hardware the installation process occurred on. Hypervisors and smarter Windows give us some level of portability, and even today we're starting to wrap our heads around the concept of delivering Windows as a disk image (and delivering patches and updates as disk image delta files). Heck, Windows 7 can even boot from a VHD.

So let's take that one step farther. Why does Microsoft deliver Windows via an ISO that has to be installed? (Especially since we can run it via a hypervisors?) Maybe Windows 8 will be made available via two delivery vehicles: an installable ISO and a ready-to-run VHD?

If Microsoft creates a bootable VHD of Windows, there's really no need for them to provide a source media with an installation process for customers to download and deploy. Microsoft could then leverage their giant cloud edge network (MSN or Azure or whatever) and could probably make sure that no user was ever more than 50ms away from a fully sharable bootable copy of Windows. (And patching would be a cinch.. just provide more delta files which can be added to the disk assembly at boot time.)

Then users would have the option of streaming / mounting the Windows boot disk / source directly from the cloud or caching / downloading it for offline use. (All the WAN acceleration companies like Riverbed, Expand, etc. are working hard on making this a reality today. Combine that with Citrix Provisioning Server, Wyse Streaming Manager, or Doubletake Flex and you've got a great solution that's almost possible today and should be simple by 2015.

Individual customers could even provide their own layers (is a layer the new transform?) if they need something specific, and the machine personality (domain ID, license key, etc.) could probably be easily extracted out into a user-specific location. (Heck, if Citrix and Unidesk and everyone else can figure out how to do that, it should be simple for Microsoft to do.)

And there you have it. Windows is cloud-enabled. For VDI. For local. For offline. For everyone everywhere. It just exists and is booted up wherever and whenever it's needed.

The app layer

Now let's focus on the apps. We're already assuming that app virtualization is the future. Most companies either have it or know they will get it at some point. Today's customers are spending (wasting?) a lot of effort moving towards the ultimate goal of packaging "every" app. But why is it that customers have to package (err, "repackage") their own apps? How much longer will vendors provide apps as installer routines when most customers will just repackage them to be streamed, virtualized, and layerized anyway?

We're already starting to see this from Microsoft, with Office 2010's "click to run" App-V-based delivery option. And once Microsoft goes down the path of delivering a pre-packaged virtual app that can just run, I don't think it will be too long before we see more and more ISVs providing their apps as ready to run virtual packages.

So then it becomes like the OS conversation. If all our apps are virtualized, and if our ISVs are providing their apps as virtual packages, then why does there have to be an arbitrary bit transfer from a vendor server to customer server? Why can't the software vendor just drop the bits for their apps out into the cloud (via an edge network or whatever) so that end users can just stream / run their apps directly from the cloud. (And again, the running target could be a local client, a customer-owned VDI, a service provider-owned VDI, whatever.)

Different apps might use different technologies. Maybe some come pre-packaged as ThinApp EXEs that don't require additional client components. Maybe some come packaged as Endeavors apps (since they're currently targeting ISVs), and maybe Endeavors creates a disk image layer delta file that lives in the edge network and is dynamically bound to the boot disk image at runtime via a Unidesk-type technology?

This is how Windows apps will become "cloud-ified." It's not about remote display protocols or web apps. It's about app packages living everywhere and accessed as needed (including downloaded, cached, updated, licensed, etc.) At this point Windows apps are just as easy as web apps or rich Internet apps.

The user layer

The user layer is sort of a catch-all for "everything else." It could include user personality, data, user-installed apps, etc.

From the data standpoint, we already have public cloud data sync services like Dropbox or Microsoft Live Mesh. We already private data sync services like Groove and SharePoint. We already have the ability for our user data to live in the cloud while being accessible to whichever apps need them.

I would imagine that it would be simple to take the database that back-ends these user environment management systems (AppSense, RES Software, triCerat, Scense, etc.) and move it to the "cloud" (which is probably nothing more than a publicly-accessible point) so user customizations can be accessed and saved to and from anywhere and via any use case.

What this gives us

Combining everything as written here means that companies can move towards managing, securing, and providing a single instance of each element of the Windows desktop and application stack. Users can access their desktops from their computers at work, home, or in public. Their systems are continuously backed up. (Well, the stuff that's unique is backed up. The Windows and application bits already exist out there in the cloud.) Users can run their desktops online or offline, locally or remote, and switch back-and-forth instantly and as needed. IT only needs to secure and backup data a single time at a single point. Service providers and software vendors can easily make updates and patches available to everyone.

What's interesting is that this is a 100% hard-core "cloud-based Windows desktop." But it's not just Windows running in the "cloud" and being delivered via a remoting protocol. (That's a nice party trick from 1998 that we don't need the "cloud" to do.) No, the Windows desktop of 2015 is a cloud desktop like you haven't yet seen, but that you all want. We have elements of this here and there, but over the next few years it will all come together. It's more than VDI. It's more than TS. It's more than client hypervisors. It's more than sum of the combination of all the parts.

This is our ultimate goal. We're combining hardware virtualization, layering, app virtualization, user envirnoment virtualization, WAN acceleration, smart replication, cloud storage. This is the future. This is the desktop.

So there you have it. This is perhaps the single most important article I've written in the last five years--the single culmination of everything I've been hearing from everyone I've been talking to.

Who will deliver this Desktop in 2015?

We will.


(P.S. I started trying to create a visual representation of this. Here's my work-in-progress. We'll discuss more at BriForum.)

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Hmm.. Here is my 2c, think about Windows XP mode. In future there is something like Windows Mode (TS,VDI). You will run you apps in "cloud", but if you need legacy Windows Apps you start Windows mode. MS, Google etc. are moving their apps from desktop to "cloud", running Windows on your computer is not mandatory anymore.


That's a very interesting take on how the desktop might become entirely cloud enabled. As you explain it, it seems obvious, and only an extension of where we are going already with VDI. This is not to detract from your vision, only a complement of how correct it feels.

Initially my reaction was that large companies - those involved in secure transactions or with high security goals would be unable to embrace it.

However by explaining that the "cloud" could be privately managed with only ISV apps and OS's being fed in from outside this is a workable model for all.

One further thought is that with the arrival of netbooks and iPads there is space (which Microsoft might fill) for a lighter OS to become the de-facto standard for offline/online use, I feel win7 is too large and contains far more than most people need, Perhaps win7 could be made more granular giving users the choice of only the features they need.



see my answer here: blogs.pfuetzner.de/matthias



Brian, I enjoyed your article. A few thoughts.

You correctly observe 16 bit apps are still around. Frankly I think this is holding back the adoption of x64 in many organizations, thanks developers of the world! IMO I think even with the continuing maturity of application virtualization we are going to be in a mixed world of traditional and virtualized apps for a long time. Not all developers are going to buy into infrastructure deployment best practices overnight. So while I hope we will be a long way forward by 2015, I think history teaches us that it will take longer :-(

As for layer cake, I think there will have to be many hurdles crossed just like in the early days of TS. App compat, management, 3rd party support immediately spring to mind. Layers sounds good, but with it comes new complexity if not done right, what Windows can actually do and of course importantly customer acceptance of a new model. I’ve heard many people say basic personalization is good enough along side existing systems management tools. They don’t want layers imposed on them. What ever the end result is I hope it doesn’t take 20 years to mature and it’s great to see some really smart people trying. If XP is EOL in 2014, which will catch many of the stragglers to move to Windows 7, Windows 8 likely in my opinion will only likely start to shift in this direction if at all in combination with IT services on demand. The one after that, I have much more hope for the mass market. Of course that does not mean smart startups won’t innovate which is always good for the industry.

In terms of delivery, you touch upon a trend that I very much agree with. The world is moving towards a service delivery model. I don’t think in the future people will need to always buy perpetual software licenses, pay maintenance, negotiate enterprise agreements etc. Consumption based services lend themselves to more customer flexibility. If I don’t like it, turn it off and use an alternative. Does IT need to own this process? This brings up an interesting paradox for many, how much customization should you be putting into your IT systems vs. the ability to choose off the shelf? What is the future role of IT? I think this is a broader consideration than just desktop virtualization.

So sure the future desktop could be a mash up of various services that are consumed on a rental basis. This is why user based licensing to me makes so much sense, it enables these models. However to adopt this, a lot has to change has in ones organization. A transformation process has to take place to get ready to consume these services. Distributed computing makes this difficult, and therefore I believe that desktop virtualization is really an architecture that is part of a broader strategy to consume IT as a Service.


Average windows admin is an idiot, blindly follows App-V as the only solution, locks into SA/MDOP, Q: hard coded mappings, lack of IE virtualization etc. There was even an article on DABCC.com that I saw a two weeks or so ago, that points to MS recommending Med-V and TS for IE 6 etc. What a joke. The only guys that can do it is Xenocode. VMware lie that they can, it doesn’t work, fud machine at it’s best. Citrix’s Joe Nord is trying, tick tick. Xenocode also kicks the crap out of any of them in streaming anywhere period. So with crappy virtualization technology, I agree it will be mixed world for a very long time.

BTW Atlantis is not a layering solution anymore. I’ve always said they were crap at layers. They are rebranding themselves as a storage I/O appliance. Their only customer that they keep touting is a large financial that has a few thousand users, planning to expand.  Hopefully they succeed at that, because the layering solution was crap. I agree layers has a ton of potential, but young, very young and immature with no supporting eco system. Now add MS back into the mix, and you are dealing with a bunch of dinosaurs that just keep making $hitty Systems Center even more complex. How much crap are they going to keep bolting on. I like their new management service offering. Perhaps somebody with a brain has woken up at MS. SCCM in the cloud in the future.... Then I can turn the crap off easily and explain to MS why it can’t actually do anything fast enough and go elsewhere.

Agree with patching problem. Pain in the butt that needs to be solved. It’s a stupid problem that still exists. Somebody should just solve that with VHD delta’s. How hard can it be?

Personalization in the cloud is a good concept. Good area for Appsense/RES to go for. Today both these vendors are too complex for just profiles and desktops for the vast majority of people IMO. The 40% of Citrix customers in Europe us Appsense claim in an earlier article is just BS. I would love to have Appsense have Citrix verify that. It’s marketing at it’s best.

I agree with all the thoughts, about desktop virt being transformational and a step function to consuming services. This is why just serving up apps makes much more sense than VDI in many use cases. This is certainly a future direction. I hate the big systems like SCCM that miss features so you end up getting others in the mix at scale and don’t use half the features of the big system. Crappy tool sets like MDOP that are used by slimly stupid MS sales teams to sell vaporware. I mean come on, a while ago MS was trying to tell me that Med-V is a great idea for app compat. No it’s a stupid idea, I can use TS for that cheaply. If I need offline, give me Type 1. Anything but Med-V. Hey I may even consider using crappy app-v if I can actually figure out with my global dev teams which hard coded drive letter they are going to remove from their code base and never use again. Yeah right, Crap-V.

So with so much fud, bad technology and dumb people in technology, 2015 I don’t think. 2020 is more like it.


Brian - Great article (although you really should have learned about putting dates to these things).  A couple of thoughts to add...

Installation can be considered to consist of delivery of the app, ensuring dependent pieces are there, configuring, and licensing.  Licensing can, and will need to be, moved from installation to run time for all of this layering to really work.  This is possible, but we still have some issues to solve for "offline use" scenarios when installation goes away.  Solvable, we are not there yet, but close enough that the end of installation could happen in the future.

I still see the data as the bigger issue in the short run.  We don't talk about it much, because we don't really know what to do about it.  It is not as simple as "what to keep and what to through away", although understanding that would be a major step forward.  In my 2008 Briforum session ("The Data Problem"), I called out eight basic categories of data that a user generates and these need to be separated and treated differently (I'd post a chart from that session here but I can't do that in a comment).  To successfully break the bindings of one user = one OS image in a WAN world (not a server farm where your bloated roaming profile is just a SAN partition away) this will need to be addressed.  Quite frankly, (and especially if we continue to live in a windows world) I think we need Microsoft to take the lead in solving the data problem.  Not only do they control the platform, but they provide a heavy hand in how all of these applications are developed (this has been a key to Microsoft domination: own the developers-->own the apps-->own the platform).  Unfortunately, I only see Microsoft as likely to try to address this in the form of new platforms for new apps (read: Azure).

We might not now how the pieces will work or exactly how we will use it all, but it sure is going to be a fun ride getting there!


16-bit Apps? What's the problem? It's not the apps, it's the OS, that's not capable of running those transparently. Take, for example, Solaris: With Solaris, there's no problem running 32-bit apps on a 64-bit kernel, as long, as you've got the necessary libs. Could have been extended also to 16bit, but, that's not been used in Solaris...

Take, for example, VirtualBox as a type2 hypervisor: As long as your underlying hardware is 64-bit (and has the virtualisation-support), VirtualBox allows to run 64-bit guests even on 32-bit OSes. So, where's the problem?

So, from that we can easily see, that the capability to RUN 16-bit Apps is a PROBLEM of the OS, not of the old legacy 16-bit app itself...

Stating this to be a problem is a limitation of the thinking, which is imposed by the limited thinking of the designers of the dominating OS...



Great point Matthias but you also give way too much credit to idiot developers who don't know how to write applications for Windows. The are more idiot developers on this planet than there are infrastructure engineers who have to deal with all their crappy code. Yes Windows sucks in many ways, well then don't write for the OS, or get smart enough to write decent software that doesn't cripple your organization, or move to a new platform. That's real life, anything else is naive, delusion in a Windows world. Sun is wonderful. yeah right look where it got them. Show me one developer who loves Java IDE's. MS knows a thing or two on how to win developer hearts and minds, it's a shame most of them are stupid when it comes to how to write enterprise class software.

The reality IMO is that MS is like the Roman Empire just after it's peak. On it's way down. The OS itself is not worth anything. There is no reason to pay for an OS, or spend expensive cycles upgrading. Windows 8 is the next Vista waiting to happen. Who will upgrade to Windows 8 after they barely get to Windows 7 by 2014 due to MS forcing them via EOL of XP and locking their dev tools to a platform.

That's the problem, locking dev tools to a platform. It holds the world back, MS kills innovations with this. Azure is just legacy MS thinking rebranded as cloud.Why does anybody in their right mind want to lock into Azure? Why not build a component architecture that allows you the flexibility to build and consume from best of breed. This is why I like Amazon. They are simply a resource provider. For the the most part they do not impose their bias on me on what OS to choose, Dev stack, apps to use etc. I can simple use them as a resource provider. MS on the other hand like they have done through their history will provide me with half assed products that lack features and will require me to build on top or use third parties in Azure. Sure I may use some services, but to assume I want to marry Azure just because I like .NET is crazy. The world has changed, and that kind of legacy thinking will drive developers into the arms of competitors, like Google and Apple who are building armies of developers of their own. Yes they want to lock you in also, just like VMware does with VSphere but Google and Apple are having far more success. I think that is because they have OS platforms that are purpose built for function. iPhone, iPad, Android do what they do well. No heavy baggage like Win 7 with feature overload. That's why Courier is going down the toilet and why also vSphere is a POS, of course looks who's leading that toy shop, another former MS guy that wants you to lock into a feature rich platform.

MS needs a cultural change. Get over Windows, and start to innovate in a more modular fashion so people "Want" to consume their software and don't feel forced. MS has a lot of good stuff that I would consume if it was consumable without all the baggage and lock in. I think there is more money to be made doing that. If they don't all they are doing is empowering their competitors. It's time for fresh thinking and leadership at MS, be open if you want to win in the cloud, not closed. Azure to date is CLOSED and a dumb strategy.


Hi Brian,

Interesting piece and thanks for the mention. We’re already seeing the crossover of our solutions into the cloud. As the cloud becomes more pervasive so will the need to for organizations to deliver uninterrupted workspace access. The nature of cloud will open up more entry points and pose challenges in delivering the personalized settings users need, regardless of where they try to access their information. As we look forward, personalization from a user-centric perspective will become critical, taking into account not only what IT services users need, but HOW they use them. There will also be tremendous benefits on the security side.

Specifically in regards to the cloud and user settings: As long as we are looking at +150ms latency when accessing Azure or other cloud based services, I believe that a hybrid approach to storing the content of the user workspace is the way forward. In the case of user workspace configuration data (drives, printers, reg settings, etc) you're fine if you cache these items locally, hence the central datastore can have as much latency as it likes.

All things being said Brian, I believe you're spot on with the above breakdown of the technology stack. Understanding the impact of managing the user's workspace is becoming more important than ever.


Max Ranzau

Sr. Consulting Engineer @ RES Software


Good article Brian.

The way I look at this is that we now have many different ways to deliver applications and that we can choose the most appropriate technology based on the application and the user. But essentially, as long as we can get the application to the user we are good. Beyond that it is all about tailoring the application for the user and personalizing it.

Tailoring the application takes care of the business specific configuration that happens today when an organization repackages the application. It includes things like language packs to take account of where the user is and configuration changes for different part of the business. Personalization takes care of user introduced confoguration changes.

And to Harry's point on the long term role of IT. I can see a large part of that role becomes this customization of applications (both tailoring and personalization) however they are delivered.

Incidentally, I see both tailoring and personalization as being aspects of the user environment.

Martin Ingram (AppSense)


this is what i have been talking about for a couple of years - here is a live example: www.microsoft.com/.../6370b721-60ee-4a14-b7e0-73471397004a