Devices for the deviceless

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?

12 thoughts on “Devices for the deviceless

  1. Sid Steward

    I would rather have a virtual machine on my USB that could run on the host machine. That would give me much more control over my data and apps.

    Better yet, a handheld device that carries my data and gives me handheld access to it, but that /also/ hosts a virtual machine that could run on a host pc and give me richer access to this same data.

  2. steve cisler

    I have worked with a number of public access sites in telecenters and libraries in places like Ecuador, Jordan, and Uganda. Because of bandwidth constraints many users cannot and will not be able to use cloud computing. At present I’m working to build a network of social entrepreneurs around the world. About 20% are unable to log into a plone system here in Silicon Valley, and it’s due to their poor infrastructure and in some cases latency in the satellite links (Nigeria). They have to resort to email and not much else (mobile phone SMS). So the so-called deviceless will have different sorts of access.

  3. Sid Steward

    Or maybe the handheld/phone (okay, iPhone) could act as a web server like a portable cloud, allowing richer access to one’s data by a PC via Wi-Fi. Imagine viewing and printing a PDF, for example.

    So you have control over data and apps /and/ leverage commonly available thin client tech.

    The iPhone could even access the internet itself to supplement its service to the PC, which may or may not be on the internet.

  4. Greg Ferro

    I have been working like this for some years. When building data centers we usually build a ‘jump box’ that we have embedded desktops into so that we can ‘jump onto them’ from anywhere.

    I thought that this was the way of the future. Five years on, I cannot see that Cloud computing will work. It might work for a year or two (much like Facebook, now starting its decline to a niche market) and become fashionable, but as the general skill levels of the population rise, the uniformity and restriction to the lowest common denominator of service will see Cloud Computing fade out.

  5. Sid Steward

    Greg- I believe cloud computing is an attempt by some to profit from a centralized platform. I foresee that such a platform would be much more restrictive than today’s PCs. And privacy? Forgetaboutit!

    I’ve started looking for a portable wi-fi web server. One is the Sony FSV-PGX1. Such a device could use external power from the PC’s usb, if nothing else.

  6. Nick Carr

    Greg/Sid, You guys don’t have your heads in the clouds but you do have them in the sand. The cloud is already the dominant platform for personal (nonbusiness) computing among people under 30 (and perhaps for people with broadband access in general). People have already voted with their clicks, and the cloud won. We can still argue what the ultimate balance between the cloud and the local machine will be – that remains to be seen – but to argue that the cloud is going to go away or become less important is just an exercise in denial. Nick

  7. John Faughnan

    Isn’t the iTouch basically a $200, and falling quickly, cloud computer for the masses?

    Runs OS X (more or less), 16GB of storage (going up), good web browser …

    Of course Apple could do far more, like enable a bluetooth kb and maybe (much harder) some kind of video out, but it sure has a lot of the pieces.

  8. Creaky

    You forgot to mention that thousands of libraries in the U.S. are open to the public and welcome any user to come in and use their space, workstations and internet connections (usually at no cost) in addition to their library collections.


    A Librarian

  9. Thomas

    In repose to Nick’s comment. I’m under 30 and I do spend most of my online time using web apps. But I don’t use them as a substitute to MS Office (or even Outlook). I’m using web applications in a way that competes with the time I spend on phones or TV. My wordprocessing isn’t going into the cloud. (My backups do go to S3 though.)

  10. Sid Steward

    … You guys don’t have your heads in the clouds but you do have them in the sand. …

    Not at all. I only propose that cloud computing isn’t confined to the Internet. It can work on an intranet or even an ad-hoc wi-fi network. It can work on all three, delegating tasks appropriately. It can leverage overlaps (e.g., backup to remote host when online) or compensate for outage (e.g., remain functional when offline).

    Casting cloud computing into the old-fashioned client/server paradigm is short sighted. Moore’s law is as relevant as ever.

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