a paradigm shift in how we compute

Apple just had their keynote to kickoff WWDC yesterday and went into the details of OS X Lion, iOS 5, and iCloud. it was iCloud and the merging of features from iOS into Lion that were most intriguing, some of the most powerful signaling a shift into what was once called “dumb terminal” computing.

back in the 90’s, a group of companies like NEC and Digital came up with the idea for terminal computing. the design called for centralized servers that maintained all of the storage and computing power while networked terminals accessed the server and held no local data. this type of computing targeted large corporations and reduced their computing hardware costs by not requiring the purchase of desktop computers for every employee. instead, these terminals were just non-computing monitors and keyboards that allowed employees to log in and directly manipulate their data that was stored on the server. it provided enhanced security and scalability as well. however, this form of computing never caught on since it was expensive to translate into the mainstream due to a lack of broadband communication and the service at the time was extremely slow. the cost savings just didn’t outweigh the negative attributes caused by primitive network tech of the time.

however, with Apple’s iCloud, we have largely fixed the issues of that time and are now able to provide a service of that nature. added to that is the boom of mobile devices that are more powerful than even the desktop computers of that day. the ability to do real work on mobile devices is here, but our data is still stored locally, requiring ever more expensive devices to manage that data. we have finally hit the point where centralized data storage is necessary to put more “terminals” in the hands of the masses. iCloud seems to be the first real push toward that repeat of history.

yes, we have services now that allow location agnostic access to our data, but it’s severely fragmented. even google’s services don’t allow for a single sign-in to access all of our data. worst of all, it’s “on demand'” as we can pull what we want and backup what we want, but the human factor still persists; if you forget to upload it, it’s not going to be there. there’s also the complexity factor as many are unable to grasp the concept of file systems and can easily lose their work as quickly as they attempted to save it. but iCloud seems to be different. it has persistent backups, makes the file system nearly invisible as each program or app will automatically display the data associated with it and allowing the user to simply choose the name of the file they want to access without drilling through layers of folders. computers and especially mobile devices will simply become dumb terminals which the primary user can log out of to share with someone else who will input their login info and use as if it were their own, all of their data, files, settings, photos, etc. will be available. and once finished, can log out, return the device, and all of their personal data is gone, making it secure.

with access to your data in a persistent fashion, could make the computer of today a niche product, as. people could survive on shells like dumb terminals, with no local computing or data storage. it would also enhance security; even the process of selling an old computer would be as easy as logging out and powering off instead of wiping the device of all traces of an owner’s personal info. maybe we’ll even see pay-per-use public terminals; imagine an iPad installed like an ATM, allowing anyone to access their data on-the-go akin to the phone booths of yore.

instead of paying hundreds, even thousands, for a computer, people would have logins. computing would be available universally from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich as access doesn’t require the investment in hardware and simply the dedication of space on a centralized server.

of course some will always want their data stored locally. other data just has to be local. but I think iCloud has finally put it all together unlike all previous comers. it will make computing truly universal. data no longer has to be portable as it will be there waiting for you whenever you arrive or even on the way using your mobile phone.

this is truly the post pc era. once this catches on, computing, and the computer ownership experience, will be changed forever. and in a way, it already has with the iPad.

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