Cloud change

This will look so outdated
This will look so outdated

I am here to tell you that the second age of personal computing is over, and the third has begun. This week, we bought a netbook. (Pauses for gasping intakes of breath!) (Is disappointed by heckler in the imaginary crowd shouting out “So what?!”)

“So glad you asked. Let me explain.”

My family got our first personal computer in 1982 or 1983. I was four. Mom and dad took the plunge in a very financially hard time, I believe because it was good for dad professionally. Also because my father is the earliest of early adapters (let us discuss the LD player, shall we?). That was the first breaker of the first wave of personal computing. That computer had a word processor (was it Wordstar 2000?). It booted from a 5 1/4 floppy. It hooked up to an electric typewriter as a printer. (We called them Doc and Olive — Olive was an Olivetti whose usefulness far outlasted Doc’s.) I remember a banner spelling out my name in huge letters, with each letter made up of smaller letters. We got this computer before I could read.

That first wave of personal computing involved dumb machines. There were no connections to anything. Files were moved (rarely) by floppy disk. Computer games were played by yourself at the computer. This went from 1982 until, in my world, 1995.

In 1995 we got a modem and AOL. It was a long distance call. I got an hour a week. I would carefully craft a bunch of emails, connect, send them out and get new ones in, and then spend the rest of my time in (relatively tame) AOL chatrooms. All this was still done on the big tower computers that dominated backrooms and offices — nests of cables slung heavy against dusty backboards.

This second age of computing — the connected but dedicated machine — is the one now passing.

We have an office. We’ve had an office since we first got married. This office has always had two big computers. (We share our finances completely, but we DEFINITELY have his and hers computers!) One of the computers always has a big monitor, a cutting-edge (read: extremely costly) video card and a lot of processing power. The other had these things five years ago (that would be mine). Lately, though, we haven’t been spending a lot of time in the office. It’s ALL THE WAY UPSTAIRS. It’s also not a very kid-friendly room. While Grey is entertained on his own computer (err… what?) Thane thinks the room is delicious. It is not a Thane-ok room. So the upshot is that when we go upstairs, it’s usually late at night and when we feel like hiding.

This poses lots of problems. There are now a bunch of things we can’t do without internet access. “What are we doing this weekend?” “Where is the party?” “Just what does ‘Onogaeshi imasu’ mean anyway?” “What can you do with kohlrabi?” These are all questions that we reflexively turn to the internet to answer. Google docs has most of our documents. Picasa has most of our pictures. Google calendar has the master data about our schedule. Gmail usually has several things in it that require action. Mapping is online. We do not have an encyclopedia set. So either we tromp upstairs, we wait, or sometimes we’ve brought our work laptops home.

Enter the netbook. It’s small. It’s light. It’s portable. It was relatively inexpensive. (If it gets damaged, we will be sad but not devastated.) It connects to that great googly cloud of information we need. It can run games. It has more hard drive space than my current tower.

I have a sneaking suspicion we will never buy another tower. Their day is over. We’re both programmers. But you know what? Both of our work computers are LAPTOPS. My laptop has enough power to run Eclipse and Flexbuilder and Coldfusion server and SQL Server Management Studio and WinCVS simultaneously without breaking a sweat. It’s not even specially tricked out — it’s the same laptop specs that our business folks have. Why would I want an immobile tower? I’ll turn our office into a peaceful craft space — a real retreat. Maybe I’ll even get an armchair for reading up there. I’ll banish the cables.

There was really only one reason we were hanging on as long as we did: gaming. My husband likes to play video games. But the video card on his last computer cost, I think, $600. The monitor wasn’t cheap, either. If our only reason to do this is games, we could probably buy TWO game consoles for what buffing up his computer cost.

Thus begins the third age of computing. This age will be small and mobile. Many devices will be able to access that part of the cloud they need. Instead of one big device intended to serve all purposes, we’ll have many smaller application-specific devices. We won’t have “my computer”. We’ll have the netbook, the laptop, the gaming console (which, if we aren’t there already, will handle your MMORPG too), the phone (which, God willing, will have our calendars and to-do lists on it). Many of our devices will do more than one of these. The netbook, for example, has a built in webcam and does Skype far better than the hard-to-reach upstairs tower.

Have you made the switch from the second to the third age? Do you see it coming? Is there a compelling reason for that tower that I’m not seeing? What do you think?