Is it Time For a Portable Dumb Terminal?

The dedicated web worker can do pretty much anything within the confines of a web browser these days: send and receive email, create and share documents, chat via various messenger services, update task lists and calendars, even (thanks to sites like Heroku or Bungee Connect) create entire applications. We can also, thanks to laptops and mobile phones and EVDO and WiFi and a batch of other technologies, work just about anywhere. But for me at least there’s a disconnect between the growing use of online applications and the technology that I’m using to access them on the road.

Here’s the problem: if I want to get out on the road and stay connected to my applications in the cloud, I have a choice between using a laptop computer or using a mobile phone or PocketPC type device. If I choose a computer, I’m hauling around hard drives and CPU power that I don’t need to render web sites and make HTTP requests back to them. If I choose a mobile device, I have to deal with a teeny-tiny screen (and I don’t care how good your pocket browser and gesture-based software are, they’re still no substitute for actually seeing what I’m doing).With more and more processing power available in the cloud, we’re reaching a point in computer networks that reminds me of the old mainframe days: work is being performed centrally and only displayed remotely. For mainframes, the display device was the “green screen” terminal: keyboard, video display, the ability to talk to the mainframe, and not much else. Personally, I’m ready to see the analog of this idea come to our mobile world.

What would a portable dumb terminal look like? It would start with the screen from a decent laptop, but get rid of the hard drive, DVD drive, and most of the CPU and RAM. It would need good wireless connectivity, preferably over multiple ways of finding the net. It would still have a keyboard and pointing device, but not be a touchscreen or stylus-driven device. It would be light if you wanted, or allow you to attach an external battery pack that would bring it up to the weight of a laptop and give you hours and hours of connect time. It would have a topnotch browser in firmware, with javascript and Flash support.

I’ve seen some things that almost fit the bill, but not quite. The various “internet computers” of a few years back were all desktop-bound. The MacBook Air gets “small and light” right, but costs too much because it also carts around lots of processing power.

Would you buy such a device if it existed? What else would be in your dream mobile connectivity device? Or are you perfectly satisfied with the hardware choices that you have now?

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