The Cloud Makes Computers Truly Cheap and Truly Personal

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 (s GOOG) 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 (s TXN), Qualcomm (s QCOM) and Nvidia (s NVDA) that use the ARM (s armh) architcture rather than Intel’s (s intc) 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.