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Summary:

As computing becomes cheaper, smaller and more mobile, our gadgets are morphing from desktops into notebooks and from netbooks into smartphones. But rather than focus on how small or cheap these devices can become, forward-thinking companies should focus on how their constant connection to the Internet changes […]

As computing becomes cheaper, smaller and more mobile, our gadgets are morphing from desktops into notebooks and from netbooks into smartphones. But rather than focus on how small or cheap these devices can become, forward-thinking companies should focus on how their constant connection to the Internet changes what they can do with a pile of chips, a screen and some other electronics.

Once any device can connect to the Internet, it can connect to the cloud. This offers OEMs a chance to make computing devices that run on a wider variety of chips, and software developers a chance to make programs without paying a toll to a device owner or mobile carrier. Once devices can access the web, the most crucial piece of any computer isn’t what kind of chips it has inside, but its browser — the gateway to the cloud.

It’s a point I’ve made before, but two stories brought this home for me again today. One was an article in MIT’s Technology Review talking about Google’s new Gmail program for iPhones and Android phones being accessed via the web rather than downloaded to the phone from a formal app store associated with a carrier or a device. As the article points out, Google took advantage of features on the WebKit open-source browser engine to build the app and make it behave as if it were running on the device, rather than over the web.

In other words, Google used WebKit to separate the software from the machine. If others do the same, that makes it more feasible to use cheaper chips and open-source operating systems to build out mobile computers in a variety of shapes and sizes. As consumers become more comfortable accessing programs in the cloud and storing their documents there, the familiarity of the Windows operating system becomes less relevant for the consumer, and developers can instead build programs designed to run in the cloud.

On the silicon side, if software is no longer tied to the underlying chip architecture, OEMs have greater flexibility around using chips from companies such as Texas Instruments, Qualcomm and Nvidia that use the ARM architcture rather than Intel’s x86 architecture. As an EETimes article points out, if you can run your applications in the cloud, then the underlying hardware becomes less relevant. This holds true on the client side and in the server world as well, which means we may see the x86 architecture and Intel’s tremendous power begin to erode.

For chipmakers the rise of the cloud means more potential markets for their silicon, and for application developers it means they could build an app without paying over a chunk of their revenue to an app store or going through an approval process. For consumers this could mean a cheaper device that with active management, could be a gateway to a truly personalized computing experience.

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  1. Browser vendors should accelerate support for HTML5, to enable web applications like Google’s new Gmail app. There is a YouTube video that demonstrates the app here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmjxmOtNZCk

    OS vendors should also accelerate native support for BONDI (or PhoneGap). Although BONDI and PhoneGap are currently envisioned for smartphones, it is conceivable that in the near future MIDS, netbooks, notebooks, etc. will be equipped to support geo location, accelerometers, etc. and, with BONDI/PhoneGap support, web developers could write applications to access those services on those devices, as well.

    There is a PhoneGap demo here:
    http://phonegap.com

    A link to the BONDI website is here:
    http://bondi.omtp.org

  2. The cloud in your hand | Alec Saunders SquawkBox Tuesday, April 14, 2009

    [...] Stacey Higginbotham’s piece on Cloud Computing emphasis how Google is blurring the boundaries between the Cloud and local computing.  The example given is GMail running on iPhone or Android, and how Google is using Webkit browsers to make the app behave as if it were running on the web. [...]

  3. Spot on! And I’m convinced the trend will go further – why not run the browser itself (along with all other apps, including the desktop) in the cloud, and use the client platform as a 0-client that only provides the user i/o capabilities? A service provider will provide broadband access, and with it the ability for really dumb clients to reach all kinds of services, including the “hosted browser service”. As long as it is secure and simple (simple == no need to configure the client, 0-maintenance on the client).

    As far as Intel is concerned, they need not worry – when (and its *when*, not *if*) your vision materializes there will be so many more users of all things cloud (apps, browser, desktop, video, radio) that the number of x86 server chips will far exceed today’s shipments of x86 client chips.

  4. Matthew Hardy Tuesday, April 14, 2009

    Apparently, many are missing the lunacy of yet another never-ending monthly payment. Computers are getting smaller and more powerful in order to run applications that you can buy for a one-time payment. The subscription model is best for the vendor, not the consumer. Perhaps you would advocate that hardware manufacturers should stop selling devices and only rent them.

    1. There are a number of advantages to cloud computing:
      1. You can (or will soon be able to) access the service from any device (smartphone, netbook, notebook, TV, car computer, ….).
      2. Eventually, you will only need a “thin” OS on the computing device (lower cost, less maintenance, faster, …). This will lead to lower cost hardware, as well.
      3. You are always running with the latest version of the application (when the cloud app is updated, you are updated).
      4. You don’t need to back up your data (or it is less necessary), if it is stored in the cloud.
      5. Cloud apps can be hosted on the internet or on a “private” cloud.
      6. …

      Re. subscriptions, perhaps the app provider uses advertising to support the service, so it can, in many cases, be free. Even with subscriptions, the TCO may be equivalent or lower, considering purchase price, maintenance, upgrades, support calls, lack of convenient access from all devices, etc.

      Time will tell, but the cloud model is likely to make computing far simpler for the average user.

      1. > far simpler for the average user

        … and less in control and forever beholden to vendors who can use customer data for their own purposes. This going backwards.

        Many people think of themselves only as a customer to the internet. This idea of all computing moving to the control of large providers to which monthly fees are endlessly paid was already tried in the CompuServe and Prodigy days. Trust me, you don’t want your only choice to be that of paying increasing and never-ending subscriber fees for everything you do on the internet. This vision is antithetical to humans use of large systems wherein they have a stake because people want to own their property. My prediction is that everyone will have a personal/business server – without any concerns for data portability or data interoperability. I don’t mean to say that cloud-computing and software-as-a-service won’t continue to grow, I’m saying that individuals will increasingly demand foundational systems that afford personal control and ownership while enjoying complimentary systems that extend and enhance. Others may argue that it’s the other way around – and it may be so at this time – but egalitarian instincts will dominate long-term.

      2. Oh… and just about the time when everyone’s data is stored in the “cloud” (read: other people’s computers), we can all welcome metered access from our ISPs. Won’t that be fun.

  5. Software Plus Services? No One Told Google | CloudAve Thursday, April 23, 2009

    [...] on GigaOm Stacey points out that releases like the new Gmail portend of what users can expect to experience on low level (read [...]

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