Is it Time For a Portable Dumb Terminal?


[digg=]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?


Antoine of MMM

The Ceilo Redfly is probably the closest to this right now. Its ability to work in concert with a smartphone pretty much makes it a web worker’s best friend – at least though who are in the sales, training, and consulting sides of web working and therefore mobility is defintiely predicated on how versatile one’s phone can be in a pinch.

Michael Janke

How about a Zonbu ?

They have the concept pretty close. I’m not sure how well they execute it.

Or a wireless SunRay in a laptop form factor?


I’d love one. Let the screen rotate between landscape and portrait so it doubles as an ebook reader and I’d pay $4-500 for it.

Andre Kibbe

I got to test the Foleo for few weeks. The remote login software was still in development by the time Palm orphaned the device, but it was a good platform in principle.

The Redfly is a smarter design from a third-party developer’s point of view. Unlike the Foleo, which required Palm programmers to learn a new API and graphics subsystem, WM programmers can continue writing for the existing platform. Hopefully Palm will revisit the Foleo concept with the Redfly approach in mind — once they finally get their Nova device out the door.


I agree with the minimum disk, but memory and CPU needs to remain sufficiently high to manage the Java, Flash, and other apps that actually run on the local hardware, not on the cloud server. A lot of the processing that Ajax applications do to parse and render data is in the browser, so CPU and memory are going to remain important resources on a connected “dumb” terminal.


I’m a devotee to the eeepc. It is small, but powers on within 15 seconds and thus I can jot my notes during the morning commute on the train or in any coffeeshop.

If I need to collaborate, in the same time it takes to dig through your purse or man-purse, my eeepc can be turned on and ready to roll.

Wireless capability and the less-dirty feeling you get from OpenOffice, not microsoft.

Only beef: Google Gears doesn’t seem to work, so my holy grail of google docs working offline is a myth for now…

John B

My old laptop, (circa 2001 – 1GHz Pentium 3), has found a new life recently being used as a terminal for connecting remotely to windows servers.

I’m not ready to give up processing power in my laptop yet, (I don’t feel we’ve reached the point where internet access as universal enough yet), I can see that day may come soon, and a device like this would be great!

steve paine

Nokia are working on this and Redfly already have a product although it costs more than an eee pc.

This is going to happen in a big way soon with high end mobile phones.

Troy Duncan

My ultimate cloud laptop would have very little hard disk space. It will have just enough RAM and processing power to handle my desktop utilities and web browser. It would also be Linux and FireFox based with a wide screen. Oh yeah…It will cost less than $400.


I would definitely buy what you’re describing. It probably makes a difference that I don’t have a laptop now. Since I have a desktop that works perfectly well, my laptop doesn’t need all the fancy stuff that is being used less and less these days (hard drive, DVD, various connection ports, etc).

Pretty soon we’re all going to be unplugged from operating systems anyway. I can’t even remember the last time I purchased software in a box and loaded it onto my computer.

Just give me something light, with good battery life, and an awesome internet connection, and you can forget everything else.

I do believe however, that the next gen should be a tablet-like touch screen. It should still have a regular keyboard, but much of the time, I’ll just be browsing the internet, and not need a full size, fully featured keyboard available to me at all times (which doubles the size of the device. Just a 14 or so inch tablet where I can bring up a touch screen keyboard overlay when every so often I will need to type web addresses, username/password, or search boxes.

That’s my ultimate new laptop.

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