Plugging into the cloud

They are ultra-portable and some people think that plugging them into the ‘cloud' is a great idea. Windows investigates as to whether cloud computing is about to revolutionise the way many of us work and compute.

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By  Gareth Van Zyl Published  February 8, 2009

They are ultra-portable and some people think that plugging them into the ‘cloud' is a great idea. Windows investigates as to whether cloud computing is about to revolutionise the way many of us work and compute.

Cloud computing and netbooks have become the new buzz-words in IT and tech circles in recent times. Netbooks, especially, are all the rage lately with netbook sales going through the roof in many parts of the world. However, it does raise the question: Are netbooks in conjunction with cloud computing about to revolutionise the way many of us work and compute, and are there any downsides involved in using this combination?

Many may ask what is 'cloud computing' in the first place? ‘Cloud computing' refers to users accessing technology-enabled services on the Internet ("in the cloud" if you will) via their desktop computers, laptops, notebooks, netbooks, entertainment centres, handhelds and so on. Users can store critical and private data in the cloud, and users can perform work tasks in the cloud as well.

Google Apps is most probably the most well-known form of cloud computing out there. Google launched its app suite in 2008 and Google Apps offers a range of apps from messaging to work collaboration. If you already have a Gmail or a Google account, you can use some Google Apps for free, such as Google docs (which is a web-based word processor and spreadsheet program) and Google Calendar. Google also offers a premium Google Apps service at US $50 per user per year.

Many small businesses around the world might find Google Apps appealing as it can drive down computing costs. Google docs in particular offers workers the opportunity to boost their productivity by working from just about anywhere (with a netbook if they have one) while still allowing their documents to be made private or public to the group that they work with.

The Google Docs level of functionality though is much simpler than that of Microsoft Word or Excel. If you want to perform more complicated tasks such as typing up a word document with a template, then Open Office or Microsoft Word is frankly a better option. Another issue is that many of the Google Apps are in beta phase and therefore could be ‘buggy'.

But Google isn't the only cloud computing service-provider out there. offers application hosting, backup and storage, on-demand workforce, content delivery, search engines, e-commerce, web hosting and high performance computing. Even Microsoft has jumped onto the cloud computing band wagon with its Azure Services Platform (Azure) - an internet-scale cloud services platform hosted in Microsoft data centres. Azure provides an operating system and a set of developer services that can be used individually or together.

All these above-mentioned cloud computing services are better suited towards a work environment, but there are cloud computer services out there that cater for the more casual computer users amongst us.

Web desktops: More personalised

A web desktop or webtop is a virtual desktop running in your web browser. In a webtop, your applications, data, files, configuration, settings and access privileges reside remotely in the cloud. There's a wide range of these webtops out there, but here's just some the most popular ones.'s operating system user interface is simple and aesthetically pleasing. It's free to sign-up with Jooce and Jooce has been designed for those people who access computers and the internet at workstations in places such as internet cafes. Jooce allows you to share files (with drag and drop ease), watch videos, view photos, listen to music, play games, send email, chat, social network and organise files and contacts. Jooce also gives you the opportunity to customise your ‘web desktop'.

icloud consists of features such as easy sharing, rich collaboration, a built-in marketplace with free applications, integration with your mobile device and innovative drag-and-drop blog publishing. icloud also showcases free applications such as an office suite, secure back-up file storage, documents and applications in the cloud, sharing and collaboration in real-time and XML development tools. icloud even works offline.

Making the connection

So cloud computing makes computing cheaper and accessible. It seems then that netbooks are logically the cloud's perfect partner. But what is the nature of this netbook beast that we are dealing with? Recently, Windows ME conducted a group test on some netbooks on offer. Netbooks are simple in design and easy to carry around and they're designed for the very purpose of connecting one to the web and accessing email.

Netbooks range in price from around $200 to $700 and many are packaged with Intel processors, chipsets and graphics cards. They can carry 512 MB RAM to 1 GB RAM and a netbook's screen size can be anything from 8.9 inches to 10 inches, while the typical screen resolution is around 1024 X 600 pixels. Netbook hard drive storage sizes range from 8 GB to around 80 GB and the operating system is usually a Linux kernel or Windows XP.

Typically, many netbooks out there are powered by Intel Atom processors. The Intel Atom processor is built with the world's smallest transistors. The Intel Atom processors pack 47 million transistors on a single chip measuring less than 26mm², making them Intel's smallest and lowest power processors. The chip has been specifically built for low power. It has also been specifically designed for a new wave of Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) and simple, low-cost PC's.

There is debate about what the differences are between a netbook and a notebook, but, generally speaking, netbooks lack the processing power to create media and handle advanced graphics and video. Netbooks are mainly designed to access the internet and email.

History of netbooks

Cheap, light-weight netbooks didn't exist long ago. In fact, amongst the first ever cheap, light-weight laptops were built by the non-profit organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). OLPC called their laptop the XO and OLPC realised that they needed to build a laptop that would be child-friendly, simple in design, rugged and cheap to be able to distribute them to school children in developing countries.

One Laptop Per Child have used components from Red Hat's Fedora Core 6 version of the Linux operating system and they've built the XO's user interface using the Python programming language.

The XO's applications include a web browser built on Xulrunner, the run-time environment used by the Firefox browser; a simple document viewer based upon Evince; the AbiWord word processor, an RSS reader, an email client, chat client, VOIP client; a journal; a multimedia authoring and playback environment; a music composition toolkit, graphics toolkits, games, a shell and a debugger. Libraries and plugins used by OLPC include Xul, GTK+, Matchbox, Sugar, Pango, ATK, Cairo, X Window System, Avahi and gstreamer.

Intel followed OLPC by developing the US $200 Classmate PC, which is now in its second generation. They look like toys but pack all the same features of a laptop and they were coined as sub-par laptops, or "subnotebooks". Although subnotebooks were fully intended to be marketed in developing countries, they heralded the way for the netbooks in today's retail markets. And this is very noticeable when one looks at the specifications of the Classmate PC.

The Clamshell Classmate PC has a memory of 512MB or 1GB, storage space of 8GB, a Windows XP or Linux operating system and it's under 2kg in weight.

Considering that netbbooks' lower specs make cost-effective computing units, it makes sense then for users and businesses on a budget to plug into the cloud with netbooks. But what are the pros and cons with this combo?

3688 days ago
Josh Peters

This is a great and very comprehensive article that covers a lot of the issues that mobile users face and provide some great solutions. I would like to throw one more solution in the ring that combines SaaS, Webtops, and netbooks. Symantec's GoEverywhere (and it's currently a free beta GoEverywhere is a webtop that looks and feels like a windows based OS but instead of running traditional software it hooks into over 50 (and growing) popular SaaS providers like Google Apps, Zoho & Preezo. It also aggregates the storage of your Google, zoho, and accounts into one sortable view. You can also add links to your own. It runs beautifully on a netbook and since there's nothing to install it leaves more room on your 16gb ss drive to put important things like MP3's. My HP mini has Chrome, FireFox, and Foobar installed on it and everything else removed to make room for music and I use it for work regularly. I'd love to have you give it a whirl and see how it works compared to the others in your opinion. Take Care, Josh

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