On Chrome, Clouds and the Future of Computing: A Crosspost From the Tumblogs

Posted: September 6, 2011 in Culture, Technology

The following is a four part series originally posted at http://www.dearthey.tumblr.com.

Part One: On Cloud Computing And Why I Was Wrong    

I laughed when Chrome OS was announced; A great big hearty mwah ha ha.

Why, I pondered (as I choked on the effervescent bubbles of funny rolling up from my belly), would anyone spend hundreds of dollars on a machine with little (or no) storage, just so they could work entirely in a web browser all day?

I’m not laughing anymore.

When Apple announced the launch of iCloud I was sorely tempted to smack myself in the face. When shopping for a new computer a few months earlier, I had laughed my ass off (this always gets me in trouble, I see this now) at the MacBook Airs on display. Sure, they’re thin, and pretty and, unlike my iPad, run a full OS, but 64GB as a storage starting point? For a thousand bucks? In 2011? Ha!

But then, like I said, iCloud was announced and it all made sense.

I don’t need to carry my music collection with me? Or my documents? And I get to carry around a laptop that weighs less than a burrito at my favorite Mexican joint? Sold.

Not so fast.

You see, while I had been laughing at the MacBook Air that day, I talked myself into buying an iMac instead. A sexy beast to be sure, but looking more than a little chunky for my day to day purposes once I’d made the decision to go thin*. And it cost $1700. So, yeah, three months later, I was not going to win the fight to give another thirteen or fourteen hundred bucks to my Apple overlords (Hail Hydra) with my lovely but financially conservative wife.

So I grumbled, and I toyed with the idea of putting my iMac on Kijiji (not met with positive reception by my family) to finance my craving for Air, and then, as I often do, I sulked in front of a computer.

Two days ago I read an article about ditching Windows for something called Ubuntu. Being somewhat tech literate, I had heard the term before and, doing a bit of digging, I discovered that it was the most popular Linux distribution currently on offer. I did some more digging and discovered that Linux had grown up a bit since I’d last poked Redhat with the dirty stick of distrust about a decade ago.

I went into my bedroom closet (where pieces of tech that I don’t want my wife to remember I own go to die) and dusted off my two year old Dell notebook running Windows 7, followed some very simple instructions on how to exorcise Microsoft from the now bloated PC I’d once loved and, fifteen minutes later, was poking around inside* Ubuntu. 

If you haven’t touched a Linux distro recently (or ever) I’d like you to imagine Windows, or Mac OS for that matter, running lightning fast, with no crashing, no error messages and, oh yeah, free. Is it as feature rich as the products developed and sold by the two OS monoliths most of us patronize? Yes and no. I’d love to tell you that everything worked the way I wanted it to right out of the box, but I can’t. I had to do some customizing which, depending on your level of computer literacy will either be a breeze for you or will cause you to scream in frustration and swear to Bill Gates that you’ll never ever leave him again.

But.

Once I’d tweaked this light and frothy new toy to exactly the performance standards Ineeded, I noticed a couple of things right away that pleased me, and one that surprised me.

First, I was able to run on battery power for about a third longer than I ever had using the same machine on Windows. Thanks to a brilliant tweak in the battery preferences, I was able to set the machine to automatically spin down the hard drives when not in use, which meant less fan time and lower power consumption. Awesome.

Second, everything was moving really, really fast. Like, new PC fast. You know how, even with the best internet security suite, and lots of love and attention, after awhile computers start to bloat and slow down? Well, installing Ubuntu turned that clock back a couple of years. Full boot up takes less than 25 seconds; from sleep mode, less than 3. Doing a bit more reading I discovered that, unlike with a PC or Mac, that will likely always be the case. There are lots of technical reasons for this that I won’t go into, but the general consensus is that Linux will always run pretty much the same as it does on the day of install. Double awesome.

The thing that surprised me was just how much work I was doing in the browser as opposed to native applications. You see, I didn’t have time, past the customization point, to familiarize myself with all of the software differences between Linux applications and major OS applications; it was midweek and I had work to do. Luckily everything I need for work can be accomplished using Google Docs, my company’s web based CRM and Gmail. All of my social networking and media consumption (for the most part) can be done with in-browser applications. For a whole day I ran pretty much web only.

And it was awesome.

So last night I did some more reading, made a decision and installed JoliCloud, a Linux based Cloud OS, into my Chrome browser, and I played. I haven’t seen my desktop in over twelve hours.

Everything I need to do I can find in one of JoliCloud’s thousand’s of free apps, including Spotify or Google Music (music streaming), VLC (video playback), Google Docs or Office Live (productivity) to hundreds of means of consuming news and social media. Having a desktop as a hub in my home office and services like Dropbox, Box.net and OfficeLive, (all of which are integrated into JoliCloud) not to mention the upcoming iCloud, means my portable computer, whatever stripe it takes, doesn’t need to have much in the way of local storage. My battery lasts longer, my machine runs whisper quite (its a frikkin’ PC!) and the bottom of my notebook, which used to get hot enough to burn leg hairs off after a couple of hours of use is cool to the touch after a day of heavy activity.

So I’m going to keep playing in this sandbox and, when someone other than Google releases a notebook built for this type of computing, at a reasonable price point, I’m going to cackle myself maniacal over the prospect of never again having to find a file in a 1TB file system and never watching a machine I spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on, slowly lose its luster and start behaving like a petulant toddler.

*Not meant to sound anywhere as misogynistic or dirty as it came out.

Part Two: Continuing Adventures in the Cloud…Part 1…ish 

So the last couple of days have been something of a steep learning curve for me. While Linux is a joy to work in (especially now that I’ve found the absolute best distro for me. For now), the sheer variety of customization options, distributions and machine specific problems have been a little overwhelming.

Ubuntu only lasted a day. I discovered that I liked the Jolicloud app in Google Chrome so much that I wasn’t really spending anytime outside of the browser. Which made the two hours I’d spend tricking out Ubuntu to look like Mac OS more of a waste of time than that day I spent in line for tickets to a certain movie by a certain director whose name rhymes with Whorge Pukas. 

So I ditched Ubuntu and stuffed the full Joli OS into my magically reinvigorated Dell Studio. And it is a thing of beauty. Quick, lithe and, unless I really, really need to store something locally, built to operate entirely around web apps.

But….

Even with all the magic that Linux and cloud-only computing bring to the table, I just wasn’t getting enough juice to allow me to leave the house with my new toy, sans power cord.

And so, of course, I started eying my hated new, work issued Dell Latitude with the view of a budding Dr. Frankenstein. Even running my old nemesis Windows (less nemesee-ee in its 7 variety) I’d noticed that it had great battery life; how good, I wondered, would it be running an OS that almost never fired up a hard drive or fan?

That question has turned into a 24 hour blood bath of the mind, in which I’ve learned far more about BASH and Linux kernels than anyone with my lack of interest in programming should ever have to know.

First, I used the .exe file provided on jolicloud.com to install the OS as an application booting within Windows 7. That worked beautifully for about 15 minutes, until I noticed that I wasn’t getting any sound out of my speakers. Which sucks because, well, why go to all the trouble of pirating some Canadian access to Spotify, if you can’t listen to that music on the go?

So I looked up possible solutions on the Googles, and started running every suggested bit of code I could find related to the problem. For those of you that are toying with the idea of jumping into this particular pool, installing random code from websites that end in .eu is generally not a good idea. 3 hours later I finally hit a wall where Jolicloud was looking distinctly un-Jolly, and I uninstalled the app to start from scratch.

Except I noticed that it was 4 in the morning.

Balls.

So I went to sleep, dreaming restless dreams of shrieking Terminal windows.

To be cont…

It all works out in the end…

See?

Part Three: Head in the Cloud…An Interlude and Warning 

There’s been a lot of stink from the non-Mac community about Steve Jobs’ categorization of the iPad as a “post PC device” at this year’s SDCC. Microsoft, in particular, has been going apoplectic over the phrase.

However…

What was more interesting to me (after all, the fact that we have one post PC device doesn’t mean the post PC age is upon us) was the notion, touted at the same conference, that the desktop is becoming “just another device.”

While it’s certainly a prophetic idea, in no way is this a reality reflected by the current computing landscape. In fact, I would say the only thing that can make the transfer to full cloud computing even a remote (ha!) possibility for most people, is ownership of a robust home computer to act as a hub for any cloud devices you might be using in the field. Mere devicehood is not in the cards for desktops while desktops (and primary home laptops) are still Capital C computers, and cloud devices are not. Yet.

The problem is that we, as a culture, curate. The average person has more data lost in hidden and forgotten folders than they would know what to do with. But we like it that way, because we know we haven’t really lost anything. With a little diligence (or a good file browser, like Spotlight) hidden isn’t hidden and lost isn’t lost. We have this illusion that “stored on a hard drive” means real in a way that “stored on the cloud” doesn’t. And it is an illusion; just because the data is on a box in our home rather than a box in a server farm in Palo Alto, doesn’t make it any safer or less likely to evaporate. In fact those things are less likely to happen with cloud computing because the people maintaining that server farm are paid to know how to safeguard your data, whereas you are not.

But we’re not there yet. We still need to feel like we control where our information is located, and the idea of detaching ourselves from local storage is still too terrifying a prospect for most.

However…

If you’re not one of those people and you’re at the point where you want to take that plunge into a world where the size of your hard drive is no longer a measure of the quality of your systemsplease ensure that you have the following things in place, otherwise your first leap into the cloud will be…unenjoyable at best.

  1. Slim down your home storage: Go through your drives and clean house. Get rid of that pirated copy of West Wing: The Complete Series; you haven’t watched any of it in years and, should the urge for some Sorkin style melodrama overtake you, you’ll likely be able to find it all again. After all (and to the chagrin of anyone who’s ever been in a Girl’s Gone Wild video) nothing on the ‘net is ever really gone.
  2. Get comfortable with all of the various and sundry cloud storage services. Unless you want to add a monthly fee for what are, so far, sub par services, you’re going to want to use multiple services, using each one for a different data type. No, documents don’t count. That’s what Google Docs is for. Eventually there will be a beautiful, reasonably priced mecca of unlimited storage that will usher in a new age of mobile computing, but until then you’re going to have to mix and match a few different services to get all of your important files accessible from all your machines, everywhere. Figure this stuff out before you leap into the Clouds or your experience is likely to be…less than awesome.
  3. Don’t go mobile if you can’t afford it. If you aren’t lucky enough to live in a region that has a mobile provider with non-gouge-y data prices, hold off for a bit. I lucked out and found out that Wind Mobile sells a MiFi with “unlimited” (where unlimited is 5GB at full speed and more at….less speedy) data access for $25 dollars a month. That works for me. If you don’t have something comparable, wait. Two of the biggest advocates of cloud computing are Apple and Google. Cloud is a priority for them; Apple because they want you to buy last-all-day tablets and super laptops like the iPad and Air, Google because they really, really want you to buy a Chromebook. Because its awesome. Unless you live in Canada. These are also the makers of the two dominant mobile phone products on the market. Mobile data is going to come down in price, mostly because there isn’t a mobile carrier in the world who wants to see Apple or Google spend their billions building a competing carrier service.
  4. Finally, do your research into which Cloud OS (and yes Mac OS Lion counts, if you’re using an Air) you’re going to use before you install it on your primary mobile device. Dual boot everything, test, retest and compare every detail; you don’t want to have to migrate to a new system a week from now. I…didn’t do this and, while this is kind of a hobby for me, troubleshooting display and sound card issues for 2 days might be enough to drive you screaming back to a Commodore 64 with a 14.4 connection.

Happy flying, let me know how it goes.

Part Four: Episode III…The Return of Bliss 

So…

I’m going to get this out of the way right now, In the last week, I’ve become a gushing addict of this technology. I’m an early adopter; this is what we do. I get it into my head to try something new, and if I like it even a bit more than my old system, I figure out how to customize it to fit my exact needs and then I run screaming joyfully at anyone who will listen that they’re doing everything wrong.

It’s really, really annoying. For everyone around me. Especially my wife. I’m sorry dear.

But, that being said, if you’re not adopting this tech, you’re doing everything wrong.

Home computers were designed with an eye towards making life easier for people. They didn’t, at first, but that was the plan. The initial problem was simply a lack of application. It was an overpriced, elaborate typewriter that you could play text-based (yes!) games on. It wasn’t really until the corporate world adopted them that PCs became a standard and useful staple of the average home office. Really, it’s been productivity that has pushed the medium forward. To a point.

Productivity, and the needs of the masses to be more productive, more efficiently, have been at the focal point of the computing world for so long that, when mobile computing replaced the fixed desktop as the channel of choice, pretty much everyone missed the boat on what portable meant.

Portable does not mean: Do everything my home computer does, except not as good and with the constant annoyance of having my battery die. The what of portable should have been an answer to the why of portable.

Why do I need to carry my computer out into the world with me? Is it just to carry mywork with me or is it to make my life easier?

Apple understood this. Pretty much everyone else making computers didn’t.

Before the iPhone, there really wasn’t a smartphone market. There was the Blackberry, which had locked down the business world as the communication tool of choice, but was seen entirely as a business tool; and there was everything else. And everything else had a much much bigger piece of the pie.

Then the iPhone came out and single-handedly created a market for fast little computers that you could put in your pocket, make calls from and use for a million things that have nothing to do with work. People ate them up because they, and by extension the wonderful new software landscape of “apps,” made everything in life easier.

Need to SMS/MMS/Email/Facebook/Tweet/Tumbl? There’s an app for that. Need to sync documents/pictures/videos/games/books/contacts/calendars across multiple accounts and machines without everything getting confusing? There are a hundred different ways to do that.

These little machines, be they iOS, Android, or the floundering Blackberry, have become a life crutch for us, not because they help us with work, but because they make life simpler.

And life, for the most part, is about consuming. It’s reading, sharing, talking, watching, listening, curating and hoarding. And, coming in at a very small percentage, is productive work. This is what’s been missing from the computing dialogue; these are simply not machines for work anymore, those are at work. Our laptops and notebooks and netbooks and tablets and smartphones etc. are portals into our everyday lives. And how do our lives interact with the lives of others, for the most part?

On the internet.

Social media has changed the internet from a place to (to crib a line from Kevin Smith) watch lots of porn and slander others anonymously, into a place to gather. We live whole chunks of our lives online; why then do we insist on having the tools of online life physically stored in boxes in the real world? The way we talk to each other or share with each other; the way we consume music, books and movies; these are all done through browsers or apps now, not in stationary locales.

And that brings us back to the cloud.

I have a work/home desktop. It does everything I need it to from a productivity standpoint; honestly, that’s almost a secondary function at this point. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s become the hub for all of the things I take with me into my digital life. Documents, music, books, art, shopping lists, calendars, movies, recipes, bookmarks, work projects and personal projects. All of these things and more are stored on and shared from, my desktop. I can access them from anywhere, at anytime, as long as I’m connected. And, thanks to portable wi-fi, wireless tethering from my smartphone and a bountiful availability of free public wi-fi, I’m never down. I carry around a 16GB USB drive on my key-chain, with all of my most important files from home and work, just in case the internet implodes. My phone is my communication and social networking tool; my tablet is my consumption of everything tangible tool, and sometimes, just sometimes, I need something for work when I’m out in the wild.

But I don’t need a conventional laptop. I need a machine designed to run off the web. That’s where everything that I do, lives.

I started this experiment mainly because I wanted to see if it was possible to function entirely in an online environment. I, like a tremendous number of tech savvy people, openly scorned the idea of the Chromebook when it came out. An OS that was essentially just a browser. Madness. But Chrome, as I’ve discovered, is not just a browser. It is a browser that perfectly duplicates the experience of using a smartphone or tablet OS, just on a more traditional machine. It is apps, laid over connectivity, bridging production and entertainment. It’s not a browser pretending to be an OS, but rather an OS built into a browser. And that’s why it, and OSes like Jolicloud, are on the right track,

App based and web based computing is something the smartphone and tablet markets have trained us to accept as second nature. Why should my primary portable device work any differently?

In Continuing Adventures Part 1, I’d hit a rail with perfectly integrating Jolicloud into my Dell laptop. I could get music out of my headphones, but not out of my speakers. That issue isn’t going to go away; not with this iteration of the OS; it’s a compatibility problem. But it’s not an issue, really. A laptop is supposed to be a portable device, not a stationary one. Who blasts music out in public? It’s fitting that that was my one issue. And it makes sense that there would be a bit of a compatibility problem; a cloud OS is meant to be light and frothy; jamming it into a machine built with the capacity to store every document ever written in the English language and with the power to effectively manage a multinational nuclear exchange, is akin to dressing up a baby in Daddy’s iron armor. Overkill, yeah?

What I need is a light and airy machine to go with my light and airy OS. Something with a form factor that will inspire me to take out my laptop and work with it, rather than leave it at home and try to make do with my tablet.

I need some sort of cloudbook and, aside from the Chromebook, which is cheap but unavailable in Canada or the MacBook Air, which is way too expensive for what this technology is, there really aren’t too many options. Yet.

It’s going to be soon. This is the way things are going. Early adopters usually turn into the early and late majority users fairly quickly these days, and this is too sleek and sexy an iteration of mobile computing to not be adopted en masse very soon.

It makes life easy. It makes work easy. It uses the mobile computing channel the way people are already trying to use it anyway; online and through apps. I’m not going back, even it means wasting my 250GB hard drive and motherboard fan while I wait for a machine that doesn’t make me carry them around needlessly.

Get in the clouds, before you get rained on.

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