Essay: Ruminations on The Cheaptop

Network World reports that Wal-Mart is going to be selling an AMD-Sempron 2.1GHz powered laptop with 3GB of RAM for less than $300. It’s a bit more powerful than what we think of as a “netbook” – which can go for as little as $238.

We’ve talked about how netbook ownership has gone hand-in-hand with cloud computing, but it struck me that we seem to have passed a point long ago where hardware was not the limiting factor for desktop applications.

That is, there was a time, not too long ago, when digital video editing was impossible for many desktop and notebook computers. (I’ll be referring to video editing and rendering a lot, as it’s the most processor intensive item I can think of.) Professionals could spend thousands of dollars – or hundreds of man-hours – to create videos, but home movie making didn’t really take off until the hardware could push enough pixels in a short enough amount of time.

Encoding MP3s used to be a chore. DVD playback required onerous hardware requirements. There were just some things that you just couldn’t do without a fast computer. The “top of the line” computers could do things that “bargain” computers couldn’t.

I’m not sure exactly when, but I think that we hit the point where having a faster computer didn’t open new doors to you, it just made what you already do, faster. Differences in degree, not in kind.

Certainly, video editing and rendering is faster on a quad-core i7 chip than on a single-core Sempron, but the point is that you can do video editing on a Sempron if you are willing to wait a while for the finished product. If you know you’re going to do a lot of processor intensive stuff, like gaming, or video editing, or audio mastering, or protein folding, you may decide that having the more powerful computer is a worthwhile investment, but it’s no longer talking about “need” but “convenience.”

I may be wrong on this, and I may even sound naively like Charles H. Duell in 1899, but I think that 20 years from now, we’ll still be using computers to do the same things that we do today, just faster. We’ll all be editing 4k or 8k cinema instead of high def, but it’ll still be video editing. We’ll still be playing games and browsing the web, compiling spreadsheets, etc.

Which is another factor in the rise of the “Cheaptop”; the fact that a lower-powered, cheaper computer can do the same things as its expensive cousins.

We have not, of course, reached that stage of network development; there are things you can do with an expensive, robust network that you cannot do with a simple, cheap one. And cloud computing has a way to go; not just because we’ve yet to find workable replacements for all our desktop apps on the Web, but also because the real limitations in network performance make some tasks, especially those that require low latency (like gaming) or high throughput (like video editing) difficult.

But it’s also why people are trying to find solutions to putting gaming and video editing on the cloud – because the challenge is still there. The things we cannot yet do will not be desktop applications – the things we cannot yet do are things that we will be doing on the cloud. It’s why the hype is so powerful and pervasive with cloud computing – because we techies are always looking for the next big challenge, always looking at ways to do more things. Doing them faster is great – that’s engineering. But doing new things – that’s invention. And that’s a hell of a lot “sexier.”

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