I wrote this story on a netbook, and if you had peeked over my shoulder, you would have seen precisely two icons on my desktop: the Firefox browser and a trash can. Nothing else.
It turns out that about 95 percent of what I do on a computer can now be accomplished through a browser. I use it for updating Twitter and Facebook and for blogging. Meebo.com lets me log into several instant-messaging accounts simultaneously. Last.fm gives me tunes, and webmail does the email. I use Google Docs for word processing, and if I need to record video, I can do it directly from webcam to YouTube. Come to think of it, because none of my documents reside on the netbook, I’m not sure I even need the trash can.
Netbooks have ended the performance wars. It used to be that when you went to an electronics store to buy a computer, you picked the most powerful one you could afford. Because, who knew? Maybe someday you’d need to play a cutting-edge videogame or edit your masterpiece indie flick. For 15 years, the PC industry obliged our what-if paranoia by pushing performance. Intel and AMD tossed out blisteringly fast chips, hard drives went on a terabyte gallop, RAM exploded, and high-end graphics cards let you play Blu-ray movies on your sprawling 17-inch laptop screen. That dream machine could do almost anything.
But here’s the catch: Most of the time, we do almost nothing. Our most common tasks—email, Web surfing, watching streamed videos—require very little processing power. Only a few people, like graphic designers and hardcore gamers, actually need heavy-duty hardware. For years now, without anyone really noticing, the PC industry has functioned like a car company selling SUVs: It pushed absurdly powerful machines because the profit margins were high, while customers lapped up the fantasy that they could go off-roading, even though they never did. So coders took advantage of that surplus power to write ever-bulkier applications and operating systems.
So true. I think about what I actually use my computer for and it’s not much more than watching movies, streaming television, blogging, etc. It’s not much. I’m still not comfortable using cloud computing for writing documents and whatnot, but that’s just me. It feels icky.
Still, my next computer will probably be a $300 netbook so that I can take it with me anywhere I go.