Did Microsoft Just Announce the End of Computers?

The new Microsoft 365 puts the computer in the cloud.

Windows 365 .


Microsoft just launched Windows 365, saving us everything between Windows 11 and 364 and going totally cloud-based. It's just available for business now, but if you look closely, you might see a future of greener, lower impact computing. As tech consultant Shelly Palmer notes, it's a big deal.

"Depending upon how you package your system, pricing runs from $20-$160 monthly. It may sound expensive, but remember, you never replace the computer, never need to upgrade any parts, it never breaks, and you can provision an entire PC with the press of a button. Yes, there are some downsides, but this is a big deal. Take a minute to explore what this is, then think about where this is going."

I have been doing just that. Windows 365 gives users a powerful personal computer in the cloud, while the machine on your desk becomes a dumb terminal, much like what was common in offices in the early days of computing. Chromebooks sort of work this way; according to Daniel Nations on our sister site Lifewire:

"The magic of the Chromebook resides in the operating system that powers it. Windows is designed more for the enterprise than for low-end laptops, and it doesn't scale down well. Windows and desktop apps require more hard drive space, more RAM, and more processing time. In contrast, Chrome OS is built around the Chrome web browser and brings us back to the days of terminals and mainframes. Those dumb terminals depended on the mainframe but had one advantage. Those dumb terminals didn't need to perform well because the mainframe did the heavy lifting."

With Windows 365, you can run any software that works on Windows. You can scale up the RAM, processor, and memory according to your needs. it's obvious why businesses would love it: they control everything, even with remote employees.

In the new hybrid work environment, workers are going to love this; they can work in the identical windows environment at home or at the office without carrying a notebook around, they are working on the same machine. In fact, hybrid workers are a big part of the market for this.

From the press release:

“Hybrid work has fundamentally changed the role of technology in organizations today,” said Jared Spataro, corporate vice president, Microsoft 365... Cloud PC is an exciting new category of hybrid personal computing that turns any device into a personalized, productive and secure digital workspace. Today’s announcement of Windows 365 is just the beginning of what will be possible as we blur the lines between the device and the cloud.”

In fact, it makes the device almost irrelevant. One could just have the tiniest computer stick or for that matter, a phone, and plug it into a monitor, sign in, and there is your virtual computer. While talking to a co-worker who lives in New York, I asked if she could run to the office in the fall; she said it was hard while schlepping a computer back and forth. With a cloud computer, she wouldn't have to carry much at all.

Indeed, Parker Ortolani of 9to5mac has been running it on his iPad and says it works perfectly.

macbook pro lifecycle analysis


But the main reason this caught our eye is because of what this might do for our carbon footprints. The Macbook Pro that I am writing this on doesn't take much operating energy to run, but it did take a lot of energy and materials to build, releasing what we call the upfront carbon emissions. Its total lifecycle carbon emissions of 408 pounds (185 kilograms), based on 3 years of use (it will probably last longer but that's how Apple calculates the operating energy) is 134 pounds (61 kilograms) per year. That doesn't sound like much–using EPA data it's equivalent to driving 148 miles–but it adds up. While measuring my carbon footprint for my 1.5-degree lifestyle project, the footprint of my pile of Apple hardware was as big as my hot water usage.

Many employees also have their own computers separate from their work computers, which doubles the footprint. You won't need that anymore: You can be on anything, even your phone, and sign in to work on a full-fledged computer of whatever power you need for your work.

In the end, your most important possession might well be a really good quality folding keyboard or even a Textblade in your pocket, because every screen can be your computer.

Multiply these carbon savings by the number of people carting around laptops and having multiple computers at home and at work, and it adds up. Not only do all these computers, disappear, but the places where we use them might change as well.

Your office is where you are

Me, trying to write a post from a tent on the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland
Me trying to write a post from a tent on the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland in 2012.

Lloyd Alter

In 1985 Philip Stone and Robert Luchetti wrote "Your office is where you are" for the Harvard Business Review. Their theory was the new wireless phones would make the office and the fixed desk obsolete because people could carry on business from anywhere. This profoundly influenced me as an architect, and I have been trying to achieve this nirvana ever since, using my iPhone as my computer and writing "Your Office Is in Your Pants." From a sustainability point of view, it made sense; so much time, energy, and money is spent building offices that are empty half the day and commuting infrastructure needed for a couple of hours a day and of course, cars to get there.

But my attempts to get rid of the computer never quite worked out as well as I hoped.

For some, a Chromebook and web apps might be enough and this might all seem like old news, or another case of Microsoft just complicating things. I believe it is different, with a full-featured powerful computer in the cloud, no fancy hardware necessary.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote: "Two Views of the Future of the Office" in which I noted the traditional office had been dying for years and the pandemic would kill it off once and for all. After all, the main reason offices existed was to house files, phone systems, and typewriters, and the women who knew how to operate them. That's all disappeared in the Third Industrial Revolution, and essentially the computer has just turned into an app in the cloud too.

If the pandemic didn't kill the office as anything more than a meeting place for "serendipitous interactions," Windows 365 just might.