The PC isn’t dead — far from it, really — but it’s far from the most exciting thing these days. The best selling deices are mobile, and when they’re not tablets and smartphones they’re ultra-thin laptops that put the priority on battery life and portability over power. There’s apps for almost everything, and even if all you’ve got is a browser, there’s a web app for almost everything as well. It’s been a long time since it was an absolute necessity to buy a copy of Office to write a document or throw together a simple spreadsheet.
And yet, there’s still plenty of things that you’re apt to need a traditional computer for. Yes, you still might need a full copy of Office from time to time, and rendering a video might be rather slow from your tablet. Perhaps you’ll want to compile software, or crunch some numbers in Mathematica. For that and more — well, actually, all you need is the cloud.
The Cloud: Your New PC.
It’s not too uncommon to keep an old PC around to run old software, or perhaps to reconfigure as a Linux home server. Or you can get more out of your one computer by installing other OSes in virtual machines, or dual-booting your computer. All of these are great options.
And yet, none of them are precisely simple or elegant. There’s a reason most of us don’t run our own servers to host our websites — it’s easier to pay someone else to maintain hardware and keep everything running 24/7, and only have to think about our site itself.
So why not do the same for everything else? Instead of installing Ubuntu in VMware on your laptop for software development, you can spin up a VPS and SSH in. And, if you use a service like DigitalOcean or Amazon EC2, you’ll just pay for the exact amount of time you’re using the VPS, so it’s reasonable to make a new VPS to try out something new — say, the new Ghost CMS — then delete it when you’re done testing. You could even use it as a full-time Linux computer if you wanted, something developer Mark O’Connor did with a Linode VPS so he could use his iPad as his only computer.
The same now works for Windows apps, thanks to Amazon’s new WorkSpaces, just announced this week. It’s essentially a hosted copy of Windows 7 (actually, Server 2008, but it works the same) and 3.75Gb of ram to tackle any Windows-based task you want for $35/month — or $50/month if you include a full copy of Office 2010 Professional, though you could just go for the cheaper one and throw in Office 365 for an extra $9/month on your own. And it’s everything you’d expect: you can download and install practically any Windows app you want, and run it in the cloud. Want to run Visual Studio, Mathematica, or even a Flash video from a site in Internet Explorer on your iPad? No problem at all — Windows is now just another web app.
Amazon’s obviously not the first to offer hosted Windows — Nivio gained popularity last year for offering something similar aimed directly at iPad use, but it doesn’t appear to be around today. Many others have offered similar services, and then disappeared. It’s a hard, low margin business, but Amazon’s already experienced at the hosting market, and it’s hard to imagine them offering this and shutting it down soon. This time, the PC in the cloud actually makes sense.
See, when you’re using a web app or a hosted operating system in a VPS, essentially you’re doing the same thing: you’re using your browser to tap into computing power on someone else’s computer. Gmail’s always running on Google’s servers, caching your emails, sorting out spam, and pushing messages to your devices. And now Windows or Linux apps of your choice — or even Mac apps with a tad more expense and a service like MacMiniColo — can hum along just fine in a server, so the device you’re carrying around doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting. And, of all things, it’s more accessible than apps installed on your old PC back home, since your new cloudified PC apps are in a virtual computer online you can access from anywhere — or, if you wanted, share with others. It’s thin-client computing, reinvented for modern computers that do run their own apps, but can also access remote apps from the cloud.
Putting the Cloud to Work
There’s all kinds of ways you can put it to use, most interestingly in ways that let you run software you couldn’t otherwise (yup, legacy Windows apps on any computer) or tap computing power that you otherwise couldn’t afford (witness the universities already using Amazon EC2 computing power for research projects). That power of servers-for-rent can make apps accessible to everyone that otherwise would be restricted to only the very largest of corporations, too. That’s how Pixar can offer their Renderman on Demand service through Windows Azure cloud, and how IBM is now planning to offer Watson’s computing smarts through the cloud — something your business might be able to afford for a few hours a month, perhaps, but likely not something most businesses could otherwise have ever afforded if they had to buy a Watson server and run it locally.
You can use remote servers to do insanely advanced things — or you can just use it to get your legacy Windows software running without having to maintain a PC. And, another browser window over, you can keep collaborating away in Google Docs as you’ve grown accustomed to already. After all: super-advanced research software, legacy PC software, hardcore Linux terminal, and the next cool web app — they’re all just web apps these days. With just these two announcements this week, one from Amazon and another from IBM, both the past of computing and the future of supercomputing have been assimilated into the cloud.