What Makes a Cloud Computer?

61 Comments

The relative success and cult-like popularity of Asus’ Eee cloud computer has helped raise the level of interest in what’s being called a new class of computers. Some call the new machines ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs), others have labeled them Netbooks, and many are safely referring to them as handhelds. It’s hardly a surprise that the PC powerhouses — Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Dell and dozens of others — have gone running after this opportunity.

After using one of the so-called Netbooks, it has become obvious that they really need to go back to the drawing board and rethink how people are going to use these devices if they want to participate in the next big shift of computing. [digg=http://digg.com/tech_news/What_Makes_A_Cloud_Computer]

So far, all they have done is cram traditional notebooks into smaller, maybe-lighter-to-carry bodies. They’re neither good for computing nor for communication. To me, the dozens of models being touted seem like a genetic experiment gone wrong, a fact that was brought home when I tested one of the most talked-about devices: Hewlett Packard’s HP 2133 miniNote.

The miniNote is being introduced into the educational market and will cost between $499 and $1,199, depending on the configuration. It looked like a promising device and I was quite eager to try it out. However, my excitement didn’t last very long. In fact, barely three hours after trying out the device, I decided to pack it in. Why? Not because it was underpowered, or the keyboard was too cramped, or the screen made you squint.

On the contrary, the Via C7-M processor makes the machine capable of easily handling all sorts of tasks and the keyboard was actually quite nice and sturdy to use, though it’s not advisable to use it for typing out long documents. The keyboard reminded me of the Powerbook 12, which had one of the best keyboards on a laptop. (For a more in-depth review and discussion of features, I recommend jkOnTheRun.)

So if those aren’t the issues, then what’s the problem? Many, if you ask me. It is a little too heavy — 2.7 lbs — for an ultraportable, especially if you factor in the fat extended battery you need to run this thing. It runs Windows XP and no surprise, takes too long to boot up. (There is a Linux version, but I didn’t try that.)

More importantly, in less than an hour it was generating more heat than my first Macbook Pro, aka the oven. It is not as if I had dozens of apps open. All I was using was a simple Internet Explorer. (I have not installed Firefox yet.) Maybe it’s a problem with the pre-production demo unit, but if it’s not, then the issue of heat is a dealbreaker for me, and it should be for other people as well. Any highly mobile device whose primary function is to surf the web should not become a kitchen appliance within an hour. It would be virtually impossible to use it on one’s lap.

So after playing around with the miniNote this weekend, I came up with a checklist of features that should be a must in a machine that has to qualify as a cloud computer (or whatever you want to call it.)

  1. Instant On
  2. Doesn’t generate too much heat.
  3. Minimum 5 years hours of battery life.
  4. Must feature at least four communications options: WiFi, Ethernet, Bluetooth & Wireless Wide Area Network connection to, say, an EVDO or HSPA Network.
  5. Less than three pounds (batteries included).
  6. Screen size of 3.5-8 inches (wide-screen proportioned)
  7. The primary function of the computer should be cloud-based activities that can include everything from listening to live music, reading blogs and watching videos. Writing research reports or cranking out spreadsheets isn’t the primary purpose of these machines.
  8. It should cost no more than $300. This isn’t a computer; it’s a communications device. It should really be an on-the-go device. It is a device for the moments when your cellphone isn’t enough, and laptop is too much. An iPhone should qualify.
  9. Its innards, ports should be geared for Internet-based activities — from making calls on Skype to consuming RSS feeds — though it should be able to handle external peripherals.
  10. In the future it should move away from the keyboard and have a touchscreen interface that allows one to sift through large amounts of data (or web pages) quickly, as cramped keyboards and touchpads can be hard to use.

What do you guys think? If you have your own checklist of features or thoughts about this evolving market, I would love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, please check out these related posts from our archives.

61 Comments

Mike

Nice wishlist of specifications …

I see that your head is “in the clouds”. LOL

Q dub

The device you’re asking for is really more a scaled up smartphone than a scaled down notebook. So I’d look towards Apple/RIM/Nokia to pull this off, not so much HP/Asus/Dell.

Xavier

I’ve been quite satisfied with the HP 2133 I reviewed over at notebooks.com. I like being able to run a lot of apps on the 2133 and while the fans spin up a lot, mine isn’t anywhere close to as hot as my MacBook Pro.
I think the device you described in your list of improvements isn’t a notebook at all, but a MID (Mobile Internet Device) with Intel’s atom technology.

Rob Scott

I think you are confused. Your checklist described an imaginary infotainment device but your message started with a laptop targeting enterprise.

Doug Klein

Having spent almost 10 years building X terminals, er, “thin clients”, er, “network computers” , I find the current discussions around cloud computing quite amusing. We always preached that remote processing made a ton more sense than dragging your mainframe around with you; it’s nice to see many of the benefits finally being realized.

What surprises me in the comments is the one design that always seemed the most compelling to me – a very portable, limited use device that easily tied into the stationary keyboard/mouse/monitor configuration on the desk. I think the iPhone is as close to ideal as anyone has gotten but I’d really like it if you could “dock” it like the PDAs and notebooks allow. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone bring up this missing capability. Why not? Was the Palm with a keyboard just too silly to consider repeating?

Tom Parker

re: 10. I think the major thing stopping most of the current crop (with one random Taiwanese manufacturer’s whose name escapes me demo unit being the exception) having a touchscreen capability is Microsoft. For some reason, people still want XP (I want Linux on a box like this) and MS’s extension on life for XP for these types of machines explicitly excludes any with touchscreen (see http://www.engadget.com/2008/05/10/microsofts-xp-for-low-cost-pcs-defines-some-boundaries/).

This sucks lots, because I’d really like one of the current crop but with a touchscreen.

Sekhar Ravinutala

You probably don’t want to use the term “cloud” because it’s taken – for “cloud computing,” which is really a hot area right now for hosting scalable apps (e.g., Google App Engine, Amazon Web Services).

Henry

Whens something revolutionary needs to be created, there should be no constraint on price.

Design and introduce the dream machine at whatever cost. Volume and tech advances will then work to bring the price down, perhaps even to your target of $300.

Windows should be the last thing that goes into it. Linux offers the customization capability to optimize power usage and improve internet functionality.

There should be no hard drive and I put forth the idea that storage is not a significant factor, as the cloud should store your files. Perhaps an 8 gig flash device is all you need to store your OS and WIP. Remember how tight coding used to be a virtue? Those extra gigs have to be lit up and use power.

Low power 13″ screen and communications devices are the big tricks.

Next an appropriate sized battery.

Casing should be composite light weight materials and have solar cells embedded. I am thinking of the solar powered calculator that never needs to be plugged in – even feeding off artificial lighting in a room.

3 pounds is still too heavy, why not make 1 pound the initial target?

Now we are talking.

Vicki

I just got a mini-note and it does run very hot. Most of the time that’s been okay because I tend to use it in hyper-air-conditioned places, and it’s like my own little throw rug (I have the internal thermometer of an 80yo woman). I may actually use it more in winter–I’ll be able to turn my heat down to 55 and save wads of utility money! :D

I got it because all my work is on the computer, and I’m on the go a good bit. Even my 14-in Inspiron, with all the necessary accessaories, was too heavy to feasibly carry around much. The mini-note does most everything my inspiron does (including running some non-cloud programs), but I can just carry it in a small tote bag and it doesn’t weigh me down. Combined with a verizon usb modem and decent battery life, it gives me much more freedom to roam around and still get work done. And the keyboard is great–that was what put me off of the eee, as even my small hands felt very cramped on it. So for my purposes, this is just the laptop experience, in a more mobile form.

There’s definitely opportunity in the gap between the iphone/blackberry-type format and the ultra-mobile laptop for a new game changing format, but it’ll take someone coming at it from a totally different angle, rather than tinkering endlessly with what we already have. The closest thing I’ve seen lately is a internet tablet where you type on the back with your eight fingers, with a keyboard that shows up as a light shadow on the screen, with the keys you hit blinking, so you can tell where your fingers are. And even that is an iteration of what we already have.

JR Holmes

I tend to agree with your list of needed elements for a successful netbook. The iPhone and Nokia N800 are both very close to this idea.

Even better would be the hypothetical Apple webtablet. With a screen 4x the size of the iPhone (double width/height), and a similar user interface, it would still be small enough to be under a pound in weight, but with a large enough screen to be useable without undue scrolling and pinching. Think the dimension of a quarter sized legal pad and that would be about right.

Brad Linder

For the most part, you just described an HP Jornada 728, a Windows CE-based handheld clamshell device that’s been out of production for years. It had instant-on features, weighed less than a pound, had a full (albeit tiny) keyboard, and could connect to the internet via Ethernet or a PCMCIA WiFi card. But there was one major problem: It didn’t run the applications you really needed on the go.

While many PC makers are touting this new class of netbook as something other than a computer, part of the reason they’ve caught on is precisely because they *are* computers. You can run Ubuntu, Windows XP, Windows Vista, even OS X on them. You can run Office, OpenOffice, Firefox, and other software. If you want a tiny computer for making Skype video calls on the go, you’ve got it. Want to do some light digital audio editing? No problem. Want to view and create PowerPoint presentations? Sure, why not. It’s a mistake to think of a 7-10 inch clamshell PC with an Intel, VIA, or AMD chip as a portable web browser, when it’s capable of being so much more.

Not that I wouldn’t love an instant-on machine. But Asus and other PC makers are addressing this by adding “SplashTop” and other feature that let you boot into a Linux-based OS in a matter of seconds and browse the web, use Skype, and do a few other basic tasks. When you need the full operating system, though, it’s nice to know that it’s available.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved the JP Jornada, NEC MobilePro, and other old school palmtop devices. But I think the HP Mini-Note, Asus Eee PC, and MSI Wind are completely different. They’re full computers packed into a tiny case and wrapped up with a small price tag.

Rick

If this is truly a “cloud” notebook, than it really only needs one application: a good web browser. Everything else one could possibly desire is already in the cloud – for example, in a normal day with one of these PCs I can imagine myself checking email (gmail), talking to my friends (meebo), fixing up a spreadsheet (google docs), reading all my blogs (obvious…), etc, etc. I can think of very few applications I use on a daily basis that require anything to run on my PC.

Plus, with slick apps like LogMeIn installed on my home PC, I can access and use a full computer with no problem at all.

I agree that instant on and long battery life are a must – with solid state technology and only one app running why can’t a battery last 10-20 hours? It’d be great to see it happen… a nice challenge for the engineers out there.

Subhash Palsule

I signed up, a month back, for a Nova PC ( http://novatium.com/ ) and MTNL account in New Delhi, India. It has a number of features mentioned by you in the check list. It seems it was designed by IIT, Chennai, India.

Subhash

AnthonyTull

We have been testing mobile devices on our WiFi network for over a year now. The biggest issue we have seen if not just poor battery life but low milliwatt wireless cards in these devices. It would seem most manufacturers of devices try to reach some kind of balance on integrated devices versus battery consumption. However if the device cannot connect wirelessly because of a low watt radio then why bother putting one in the dang thing.

The most used ultra portable we see from a customer use side is the Iphone. We have several folks on staff who use the HTC 6800 Mogul phone which holds up well on battery as long as you use the high capacity model.

The next device we are looking at testing is the Gigabyte M704. We are going to compare this against the Lenovo tablet which several of out police officers carry. The M794 looks like it would work well with out bike patrol units.

Just some thoughts from a WiFi network operator point of view…

turn.self.off

on battery life, a nice option would be for hotswapable batteries.

as in, rather then having one very large battery, have 2-3 smaller ones, where one can pop one out and put another in as the rest keep the system going.

say that one have 2 batteries and some electronics that swap between them and warn the user when the active one is running low. then you pop out the drained one, put in a fresh one, and put the drained in the combined battery/device charger (that should be as portable as possible).

another option are these universal battery packs with swapable contacts.

Om’s Ten Mobile Computemandments | Mobility Site

[…] Sadly, he was less than impressed, citing it’s weight, slow boot time with XP and most importantly to him, it’s massive heat production as deal breakers. He, like many users, came in with a lot of excitement and ended up disappointed by the reality of the device…hopefully designers take notice of such reactions. You can read his full review HERE. […]

James Kendrick

Om, I agree with all of your observations about the “cloud book” but with one exception. I understand your desire for a communications heavy mini-notebook or cloud book but I see these a bit differently. For me the strength of these mini-notebooks is the fact that they CAN run all of my needed applications when desired. It’s not that I want to carry one of these little beasts around to do all of my work but I see the utility of carrying one of these on a short business trip for example. It wouldn’t replace my main laptop but could be used instead on demand. That makes it more useful for me than strictly a cloud book. Thanks for the shout out, too.

stevepaine

OM, you seem to be talking about MID’s and UMPCs.
When the 701 launched, the netbook market looked like it might be going the ultra mobile direction but recently it’s become clear that low-price is more important than low-size. The HP is one of the biggest netbooks and compared to,say, the Gigabyte M704 which has half the volume and only 60% of the weight (but the same processor) shows how un-mobile they are.

Your list is good although your price target is way out of whack for a 3G device. $300 would be a sensible subsidised price but $500 is more reasonable for the outright cost until the cost of 3G modems drops and the market changes from prosumer to consumer.

Given a $500 pricing range, I think you’ll start to see your dream devices appearing with many different OS options this year. WM6.1, Andriod, XP, Linux and even Vista thanks to Intel and ARM CPU offerings.

Steve, UMPCPortal

Ben Kepes

@Tsahi @Om says it right – these things should have no apps other than a browser – they’re cloud machines after all

@Om your 5 year mistake was more correct than you know. Built in solar panels under the monitor – next gen (or the one after) battery tech and absolutely we should be able to forget about battery life. An hour under the sun should run it all day and some

@Om – the instant on and cloud comments beg some questions about why on earth cloud based machines need an OS at all. I posted about it a year or so ago – http://diversity.net.nz/an-os-less-world/2007/09/08/ – without an OS, with a SSD and, again, with some better more logical tech instant on should be a given

Vive la meterologique! (clouds that its!)

Richard

If this is a communications device, why do you specify a _wide-screen_ display? If I’m going to be predominantly working on documents or a browser don’t I just want 1024 width and as much height as I can get? Or is that what we all _say_ we’re going to use it for, but end up just using it for videos (I don’t imagine it cuts it for games)? :-)

Tom Clarkson

Agreed, the iPhone is not perfect, but is the closest to perfect that is available today.

I haven’t upgraded my laptop in a few years, and probably won’t any time soon, since adding more power wouldn’t let me do anything new. I have however just bought a new phone because the cpu is twice as fast as my old one. Phones are definitely improving fast, and will be a lot closer to perfect in a couple of years when you have twice the processing power and a more established software market.

While smartphones have been around for years, it’s only very recently they have become good enough that I will sometimes use the internet on my phone when sitting next to a computer.

Om Malik

@ Tsahi

Apps are a given though there should be very few apps on the computer itself and all these need to be fed off the network with enough local caching/presence. I guess I wasn’t clear about that :-)

On the usage model/behavior, yes you and I are on the same page.

Tsahi Levent-Levi

I think you missed an important aspect – applications.
Such a computer needs to come with a different software suite and a different kind of a user interface. As the working habits and behavior of people with it will be different, so does the applications running and the way they are used will be different.
Phones and PCs today are good comparisons – their computing power is used differently and the way we interact with their application is different. As the cloud computer is a new type of a machine that fits new habits – it should have its own usage model.

Om Malik

@Tom @ Rob…. All I can say: oops on that error. Sorry to you and all the readers.

@Tom, I am not sure iPhone is the answer but it might be the closest one come to getting it right.

Rob La Gesse

Although I would love “five year” battery life, I assume you meant five hour.

I want a device that can use the power of my other devices – the drive space on my desktop computer, the CPU on my laptop – this class of computer doesn’t need to rely on itself for computing or storage needs – it should backpack on other investments I already have – even if they are physically thousands of miles away.

I think we are starting to move in that direction – Live Mesh is an example of a completely simple way to use remote desktop, even through a firewall.

Instant on is a given though – these devices are in a class where you want to pull them out of your pocket, quickly check some info, then put them away.

Rob

Tom Clarkson

I assume you meant 5 hours battery life – 5 years would mean nuclear, and I don’t think I want that on my lap.

I don’t think the iphone qualifies yet. I do quite a bit of web browsing on my phone (htc diamond), and while the newer mobile browsers do quite well rendering websites designed for larger screens and I can write fairly well for the onscreen keyboard, for some things the lack of keyboard and small screen becomes an issue – something not easily fixed with current technology without losing the portability of a phone.

That said, phones and computers will continue getting closer together, and it’s likely to be the improved phone rather than the smaller computer that can be carried everywhere and used all day.

For now I am thinking of trying the phone with a bluetooth keyboard, which would get me something that is just as usable as a notebook for most web based stuff and still has the battery life and portability advantages of the phone.

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