There are an estimated half of a billion people in the world who surf the Net every day yet don’t own a computer. They depend on the public PCs available in cybercafes, which in many cities and countries remain the centers of personal computing. Cloud computing is ideally suited to these so-called cybernomads, as it can provide them with, in essence, a computer to call their own – a virtual desktop, or “webtop,” that exists entirely in an online data center and hence can be accessed from any PC. Cybernomads can use their password-protected webtops to run applications, store data, and share files with others. Webtops can provide an attractive alternative to the cheap laptops, like OLPC’s XO and Intel’s Classmate, in helping close the digital divide. Virtual PCs are more energy efficient than real PCs, they don’t wear out or require physical maintenance, and they can often be provided free, through ad-supported or other subsidized programs.
As bandwidth costs fall and web apps proliferate, the webtop model becomes more viable in more places. The BBC today reports on a European startup, Jooce, that is emerging as a leader in the field. It’s partnering with governmental agencies, NGOs, and local telephone companies and ISPs to provide its “Joocetop” to the deviceless. Currently in beta, the free service signed up 60,000 subscribers in its first month and it has the financial backing of Mangrove, which also backed Skype in its early days.
As the BBC notes, Jooce is far from the only company in this business. It’s an increasingly crowded field, spanning not only companies serving the poor but also companies supplying virtual desktops to businesses to reduce PC maintenance costs and hassles. In fact, the people in cybercafes tapping into virtual PCs in the cloud may turn out to be the “lead users” of what will become, in one form or another, the dominant model of personal computing in the future. After all, aren’t we all becoming cybernomads?