When things come full circle, you know you're old. I cut my professional teeth on massive centralized computers; helped use remote access to bring computing power out of the glass room; then I retooled for the massive decentralization that microcomputers made possible; made a new career in helping to connect all those decentralized computers. Now, IMHO, computing is about to go back into the cloud.
According to a story by Nathan Eddy at eweek.com, United is planning to join American, Delta, and Virgin America in offering WiFi on US domestic flights. The story talks about being able to exchange email and rebook flights while aloft. What's more important is that WiFi en route will remove one of the last reasons to carry around much more computing power than you can get in a netbook – a small computer with long battery life, a good screen, but not much disk storage and not many onboard applications.
When you want to do word processing or number crunching on a netbook, you use an application for that purpose available online. Google and others already offer somewhat weaker online versions of the Microsoft Office applications like Word and Excel that most of us are familiar with. You or your employer save money twice – once when you buy a cheap netbook without Windows rather than a more expensive laptop, the second time when you don't buy a copy of Microsoft Office.
Up until now the appeal of netbooks was small because we all spent a fair amount of our travel time offline but still wanted to be able to work. But, if we're going to be online most of the time, netbooks get to be a very good alternative. We already can get online in our cars in much of the country – hopefully only while we're passengers – using the cellular technologies EVDO and HSPA.
Maybe smart is the new cool but saving money now means survival. My prediction is that netbooks start to make serious inroads during the current ueconomic unpleasantness. Bad news for Dell and others who will probably see smaller margins on these cheaper machines; perhaps good news for Intel if the cheaper machines (which still need good computing power to execute remote apps locally) expand the market for chips. Good news for communications providers as the need for bandwidth – especially mobile bandwidth – increases. At least temporary good news for airlines since they plan to charge $12.95/flight for access (are we really saving money then?). Very bad news for Microsoft. Perhaps bad news for Apple since it's hard to see running most apps on the small screens of most cool Apple devices and the Mac coolness will be lost if we're all running apps in the cloud.
Also bad news for parts of the country which don't have pervasive Internet access. We end up using obsolete apps on obsolete machines and paying more for the privilege. Good thing we're building an e-state here in Vermont.