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  • The Computer of the Future: A Return to Dumb Terminals?

    March 19th, 2005

    Do you long for the joys of the past? Retro is in. You can now buy record players that mimic the fancy styles of the 1940s and 1950s, although they usually mess things up by adding a built-in CD player. Some cars also pay homage to automotive history, such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the Chrysler 300 and, of course, the latest version of the Ford Mustang. So what does any of this have to do with personal computers? Read on.

    The other day, I caught a column where a writer suggested that the personal computer of the future might also take us to a past life, where the office computer was a huge room-filling mainframe device and the monitors around the office were simply dumb terminals. That is, they simply networked with that mainframe, and possessed only minimal computing power and no local storage.

    Now in those days, we didn’t have an Internet, so the story goes that a future generation of computers would retain powerful microprocessors, but data storage and even the applications you use would exist somewhere out there. Satellite, super high speed broadband networks? The point is that you wouldn’t have to concern yourself about buying banks of hard drives to store your data. Why do we need it? Well, this particular commentator suggests that we are rapidly outgrowing storage space provided by hard drives. It’s not just your applications, but your digital lifestyle stuff, such as music and home movies.

    In all fairness, I should point out that the article in question is written by someone who delights in pushing your buttons, and often stuffs her prose with cute phrases that seem more designed to show off her ability to turn a phrase than say something useful. But here, she has some thought-provoking ideas.

    So let’s pursue it further. Yes, you can buy bigger drives, and the capacity continues to grow by leaps and bounds as drive vendors figure out ways to pack more data into existing mechanisms and even smaller ones. But few of you ever back up that data. What if the elements of your digital lifestyle were lost? How could that happen? Simple. Drives are mechanical devices that might fail without warning. If your Mac bites the dust, even if the drive is all right, it has to be moved to another computer, and that can be a royal pain on some models, particular laptops and the new Mac mini. And what about a natural disaster? A flood or earthquake perhaps? Consider the plight of some Florida residents after all those hurricanes last summer and let us never forget that Tsunami and its devastating consequences to life and property.

    Today, remote storage is expensive and slow, though it gets better. You can certainly back up your stuff on your iDisk, but the standard allotment of 250MB won’t even contain Microsoft Office, let alone a batch of home movies. Sure you can buy more, but it’s still not sufficient, considering that even the smallest drive on a Mac these days is rated at 40GB. Worse, even if you have a pretty speedy broadband connection, prepare to wait a long while for the files to get to their destination. And while you can boot your Mac from a network server, performance over the Internet wouldn’t deliver anything near the sort of performance you expect.

    But that’s today. Here the writer makes a good point, that “the pipes are getting fatter,” and points to plans to develop gigabit broadband in Hong Kong. We aren’t going to be abandoned, as there are hopes we’ll see similar capabilities in the U.S. in, oh, five years or so, which means you really don’t have to think about placing your order right now. But you will, eventually, will experience the same level of performance online as you get from your local drive, even a speedy one.

    If that happens, yes, it will be possible to entrust your data to some far-off storage center, which, one hopes, will perform periodic backups to make sure that your files are safe and secure. Your operating system and even your applications could be retrieved from “out there” as well. You will, more or less, rent both I suppose, in the same fashion that you would rent music today from a subscription service. Or maybe you’ll pay a fixed fee for permanent access, since it would be rather awkward to have your computer stop working because you forgot to pay your monthly fee for Mac OS XIV.

    Now I enjoy speculating about the future as much as anyone, and I can see the advantages of having virtually unlimited online storage, with wide open pipes so you’d enjoy even faster performance than you get now. But do you really want to surrender control of your Mac to some amorphous entity out there? The advantage of the personal computer is that you have everything right there, in front of you, including your applications and files. We already confront enough dangers on the Internet, so why take such a huge risk? And how would you know that the “Big Brother” of the future isn’t watching your every move, the sites you visit, the applications you run, the words you type, and the transactions you engage in. I suppose some of that happens already to some extent, as companies track your visits and your purchases at commerce sites. And certainly the scourge of the Windows platform, spyware, shows the painful consequences of allowing outside forces to control your computer.

    But there would be checks and balances, right? Yeah, sure. What about that report that the computers used by IRS employees are vulnerable to hackers? What about identity theft? Do you remember that story about a large bank losing a data file that contained information covering some 1.2 million customers? It’s a jungle out there, and you can take that to the bank; no, that would be too risky. Confidential information leaks like a sieve, and the genie long ago left the bottle.

    Yes, perhaps we’ll get the situation under control in time, improve security and bring more Internet vandals to justice. But I, for one, have no confidence that it’ll happen anytime soon. So even if I had gigabit Internet at my beck and call, I am not going to depend on a third party out there to keep my data safe. Yes, it’ll be nice to be able to download and watch high definition movies in real time, and that will be the rental motif of the future. But that doesn’t mean I want to turn my Mac into a dumb terminal and cede control to some outside firm, even if it’s Apple Computer.

    What about you?

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