What Makes a Cloud Computer?

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.

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.

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