Saturday, February 2, 2008


I'm not a big fan of notebook/laptop computing. 

I'm just not excited about dragging around 10 pounds of stuff just so I can check my mail & edit a document, especially when with 20lbs of stuff, I can live in a foreign country for a week. Having a laptop, in my opinion, doesn't really un-tether me from anything. I still need to be within 9ft of a power source at least once every couple hours, I still need to have a flat table or desk (or live with scorch marks on my polyester leisure suit pants), and I still need a posture correct chair. Using a 'laptop' as a lap top computer didn't work very good with my Epson 386-16, and after trying a few more times recently, it still doesn't work. I either have to live with 1-2 hours of untethering at a time, or I have to live within range of power, and I have to drag power brick around, or an extra battery, but I can't swap batteries without shutdown and reboot. And even worse, if I dose off while relaxing watching movies or reading PDF magazines or forums, the 'laptop' tends to crash to the ground and wake me up.

And of course the elephant in the closet is the simple problem of backup and recovery. From what I see, the vast majority of users with laptops seem to think that they will never crash a hard drive, and will never get lost or stolen. Guess what - they will.

The 'Laptop' needs to die. Let's move on.

The concept of bringing my computing environment with me wherever I go is pretty much an '80's concept made necessary by the lack of wide-spread networking last century. Things are different now. The network works. I don't need to drag my entire computing environment around with me - I only need to bring along enough resources to be able to access my stuff from whatever network happens to be available. That is how I've operated since about 1992 or so when I first figured out what a pain it is to drag a laptop down the street, and that is why I've used VNC, RDP, Citrix, SunRays and Palms. A laptop with extra battery, power brick, mouse, mouse pad, etc, is heavy enough that 'road warriors' have roll-around laptop cases. You've got to be kidding. The few times that I've carried a 'laptop' around in the last 15 years it was strictly to use as a device to access a real computer somewhere (like via Citrix).

I don't want a computer in my pocket - I want an access device that lets me access a variety of computing resources and applications. I want it to fit in my pocket, weigh a few ounces, and last a day without having to tether to a power source. I want my data to be stored someplace secure, available and accessible. An obviously I want it backed up.

So what options are out there? It is, after all, the 21st century, and some companies are starting to get it. We have a reasonable selection of UMPC's that although they are still a complete computer, they have way more portability, and the flash based ones have way less heat output and much longer battery life. One could actually imagine holding one of them for hours at a time while reading e-magazines or news. The UMPC's can be equipped with EVDO, UMTS and WiFi, so the probability of having network access is pretty good, and they can function as 'access devices' instead of full computers. Unfortunately flash based UMPC's cost way too much for an access device, and so far they are stuck with using an OS that is made for 40GB hard drives & 1GB RAM.

Another UMPC sort of device is the N800 from Nokia. Is has the size, weight of a large phone, but has great 800x480 video and can work with as little as a couple hundred meg of RAM and flash. The battery life is 8 or so hours, or maybe all day, depending on how hard you surf. It can hook up to most any WiFi network and can grab internet access from your phone via bluetooth DUN when WiFi is not available. It runs a bunch of IM protocols, an RSS reader, a media player and a decent browser. Application support is lacking a bit though, with the open source crowd working to fill the gaps. It is not a PDA and can't edit a document, but it can be hacked to run an RDP thin client. The browser works - I use it more than any other browser.

And of course Sun sort of has the concept with the latest Sun Ray. The newest notebook-like Sun Ray clones can grab a network, connect up to your computing resources and act as a remote display/keyboard. Sort of like carrying around a Citrix client instead of a computer that can load a Citrix client. Purely an access device. If there is no access, there is no computing. We've been using the desktop Sun Rays for years. They work.

The smartphone crowd keeps trying to build an 'access device' that is primarily a phone, but can do enough real work to break the 'laptop' dependency. Palm came close for a while. I had a palm phone that could run RDP & SSH for remote access, could check or sync my calendar and mail, and could access the web 'good enough' to keep me from having to carry a 'laptop' while traveling. Some of the Symbian and Windows based smartphones look like they come pretty close also, but they still assume that I am willing to tether myself to another computer or laptop periodically to sync my data and backup my phone. Sorry - I don't want to be tied to a laptop. They are dead, remember?

What about the iPhone?

If I don't mention the iPhone, nobody will read this. So here it is. The iPhone might be a step in the right direction. Forget the eye-candy. I don't care if my notepad looks like it is tearing off sheets or turning pages. That sort of silliness serves only to shorten my battery life. What I care about is Apple's software development rules for the phone - at least as far as they look right now. It looks like Apple is pushing towards hosted applications that are accessed via the network, with the phone's browser as the access device. Apple is assuming that the network to access the applications will always be available. I like that. It is that concept that is most interesting. The pundits that are complaining about not being able to install applications are going down the wrong path. The applications and your data are already on the network, in a data center, secure, and backed up. You don't need apps on your phone. You need access to your apps from your phone.

The down side? An iPhone is still tethered to a computer. You can't activate it or do anything interesting (like download a PDF) without using iTunes. That is simply not acceptable, and for that reason I am not interested in an iPhone. I want to replace the big, power-hungry home computer, not tether another USB device to it. The iPhone needs to be able to stand on its own two feet. When it grows up, it will. No doubt.

What else is new?

I ran across an interesting concept in desktop computing from Zonbu. $250 for the computer, or $99 + $13/mo for the computer plus on-line storage, support and updates. It has a flash disk, Linux, and what might be a usable set of applications.

Here's what is interesting:

The computer uses 13 watts, no fan. If you leave your computer on all the time, it pays for itself in a year compared to an ordinary desktop. This sort of power consumption is down in the range of a Sun Ray. The lack of a fan means that it is quiet - even quieter than a laptop. So it can stay on all the time. And even more interesting is the default storage. The device uses S3 to store its data. This makes for an interesting model. At home, where you might want a real screen & keyboard, you'd use this appliance-like device to access your documents via the network and S3. While away, an S3 client on a smartphone, PDA, iPhone, N800 or whatever happens to be around gets you access to your data. It is not hard to imagine a 1lb 1024x800 WiFi enabled clamshell version of this as a laptop alternative. And the best part is that I could replace my redundant home network storage devices and even my storage with always-on S3. It is a thicker client than a Sun Ray, but thinner than a PC. If it used way less power than an ordinary laptop, the battery life could be long enough and my pants wouldn't melt & stick to my legs. Perhaps it is sweet spot?

The guys that are clinging to their PC's are like the VT100 terminal guys from 25 years ago. They thought that if they made their terminals do fancy graphics, they'd stave off the PC onslaught. They were wrong. The world wanted freedom from centralized computing. But now, 25 years later, with my applications and data scattered across three phones, two laptops, a desktop, a handful of servers & network storage devices both at home and at work, a Nokia N800 and who knows what and where else, the idea of centralized computing resources accessible from a variety of devices looks pretty attractive.

Long live the iPhone. Jobs might steer us in a useful direction.

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