A New Direction for Personal Computing Has Arrived: but most consumers don’t know it!

Posted on August 10, 2010


by Steve Carpenter, June 2010 In 1984, John Gage and Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems, announced a slogan for their computer company that a quarter of a century later has become a reality.  “The network is the computer” they said.  How profound that this wasn’t appreciated then because there were no industry-wide accepted computer standards at the time that could run programs residing on other computers and share that information between programs running on several computers.  Yet that was the company’s focus and through the work of leading computer scientists and engineers, many of whom were Sun Microsystems alumni, technologies like TCP/IP and Java were created that form the underpinning of what is now called “Cloud Computing” 

The significance of cloud computing, relative to our use of personal
computers, is that we are no longer constrained to work with programs
and processing power that are contained within the personal computer
chassis sitting on our desk (or on our laps).  Many would say that that
cloud computing and the Internet are synonymous, but in fact the
Internet, and all of the standards and technologies that support it,
are all enablers of the concept of ‘Cloud Computing’.  Cloud computing
extends the Internet paradigm (or the pattern of our Internet use) to
include invoking remote applications and storage as the
primary mechanism to do useful work with computers.

What does this mean to you and I as ordinary consumers?  Well, the first
major users of cloud computing have been consumers — consumers of all age brackets, ethnicity and socioeconomic classes. Cloud-based E-mail services such as Gmail and Hotmail have been in widespread use for years. Social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace are also
cloud-based services that millions of consumers have adopted and even
take for granted.  What’s interesting about this is that these
same consumers are unaware of the underlying concept and significance
of the cloud computing paradigm that they use everyday.  Most consumers don’t know anything about cloud computing.  Furthermore they continue to purchase computers based on an obsolete model of computing that requires high-speed processors, lots of local memory and local persistent storage provided by a ‘hard drive’.

For instance, look at purchasing a computer today and one feature most
promoted (right after how many GHz — CPU frequency in billions of
cycles per second — and how many GB of RAM — billions of characters
of internal storage known as Random Access Memory or RAM) is the size of the hard disk drive.  Whereas there is something to be said for the
need for RAM and (less-so) for processor speed, for all intents and
purposes lots of hard drive space is now irrelevant for most personal computer users.  Not only do they not need large disk-hog applications like Microsoft Office, but they don’t need to use personal computer storage for pictures and music.  Using services available from vendors like Google, a user can have instant access to their own documents, music and pictures from any Internet-connected computer (or TV!) in the world. Furthermore users can create those documents and spreadsheets, modify and share the pictures, and stream their music to their speakers all without any purchasing and and loading local programs.

There’s more to consider here: persistent storage — in other words the ‘hard drive’ — is the single most important component of the continued
existence of computer viruses and malware.  Without the persistent
storage afforded to viruses by the hard drive, they cease to exist as
soon as the computer is turned off!

Think about it.  A friend’s computer is taken over by a zombie program that is part of a Internet worm.  The zombie program first reads the Outlook contacts database and sends a message to everyone on the contact list with an innocuous title like “Take a look at this!”  Everyone who opens the E-mail is infected with the worm and the zombie program that is unloaded with the opened E-mail starts using all the infected computers as SPAM (unwanted E-mail) generators.  Take away the hard drive and as soon as the computer is turned off, the zombie disappears and never appears again.  How easy and cheap is that!  We begin to understand that even most anti-virus and personal firewall software also become unnecessary.

Most people I talk to about this are puzzled at this point.  They say or at
least think “Well, if that’s so, how come I have to buy a new computer
to get on the Internet?  Mine so so slow.”  The problem is that the old
way of computing is still so ingrained in our society.  Our computer
vendors (significantly Microsoft, Intel and Dell) also haven’t figured
out yet how to make money with the new direction.  Microsoft still
needs to sell Microsoft Office, Intel still needs to sell processors,
and Dell still needs to sell computers.  So while beginning to address
the new Internet paradigm with products like Microsoft Office Live and
netbook computers, the bulk of today’s computer product development,
advertising and sales still has to do with purchasing Windows 7, Office
2010, and PCs or notebook computers with lots of processing power,
memory and disk space that is required by these complex programs.

An anecdote might be useful to illustrate the point above.  Just lately I
was running a recycled computer in the back of the neighborhood center
I maintain to provide the community with free Internet access.  Someone
with a brand-new 2.6GHz Dell laptop running the very latest Windows 7
software was standing next to me as I accessed the Internet over a
wireless connection.  My companion exclaimed, “What’s running on that
computer, Steve.  It’s wicked fast!”  Somewhat dryly I turned to him
and said, “Oh, well John, it’s the latest Microsoft software and Intel
technology, of course …. Windows 98 and Pentium II with an amazing
256K of RAM.  It was the latest … in 1998!  What progress we have

I asked my companion why they needed to purchase the shiny new computer. Well, first of all he could — he had the money — and he wanted to.  Fair enough.

However, the irony of this scene is that we were standing in a neighborhood center where 100% of the clients are receiving less than 150% of the poverty level in income.  Most don’t even have a computer, much less expensive broadband Internet access which has now become a necessity to receive even basic services in our society.   Furthermore, we are in the midst of an economic crisis, where spare cash is in short supply for just about everyone.

In contrast, just in the next room at the Seeds of Hope Neighborhood
center, there were eight networked computers all of which were running
a diskless version of LINUX in 512 Megabytes or less of RAM.  The cost
of starting the center was nil — expenses consisting mostly just a
business class Internet account, a router, a switch and a networked
printer.  Everything else was donated and at least seven years old.
Yet every single computer in the center ran faster than John’s brand
new computer as it was shipped from the factory, and every single
computer was also more secure and resistant from viruses than his.

Furthermore, we are living in a country that is growing in ‘green’ consciousness.  I asked John what he did with the old computer.  His was just sitting around at home, along with another estimated 100 million
computers, full of toxic waste, that could easily end up in our
landfills. Buying a new computer today means that an old computer —
one that is perfectly capable of doing most anything we need to do with
computers on the Internet — is going to be thrown out.

Wow! What does this tell us?

We need to stop… Stop reacting to yesterdays’ paradigm that tells us we need a new computer to do what we need to do.  Think instead that we can use the computer we already have and use what is on the Internet — today’s Cloud Computing paradigm!

Stop wasting resources: Stop buying new computers if your old computer is still running… If a new computer really is necessary, stop throwing
out the old computer, first of all, and even stop recycling computers
through any organization that doesn’t guarantee that they will try to
refurbish and re-purpose your computer
first, as opposed to merely tearing down and scrapping the computer parts.  Remember: Reduce, REUSE, then recycle is the order that we should use as people concerned with preserving the environment.

Stop spreading viruses: Stop using E-mail Client programs like Outlook,
Windows Mail, or Entourage. Stop buying Windows and use LINUX OR OSx (Apple’s Operating System) instead. LINUX besides being free, is also less of a target for viruses.  In addition, some varieties of LINUX,
like Puppy LINUX, are so much more efficient that they run in memory
(RAM) without even requiring a hard drive.

If you would like more information about how you can contribute to the conservation of our resources through refurbishing your old computer rather than recycling it, please feel free to contact me at steve.carpenter.seedsofhope@gmail.com or by telephoning 207-289-4579.