Joel Makower brings word of Sun Microsystems’ splashy introduction of a new energy-efficient processor that it will debut in servers by the end of the year, helping reduce the enormous power load it takes to run ginormous server farms like, say, Amazon.com’s.
This is very cool stuff, and long overdue — most people aren’t aware of just how energy-intensive computer technology is. I hope Sun gets some good PR points.
But more interesting to me on a personal level is Sun’s "thin-client" strategy.
Think of it this way: The typical home PC owner is called on to do a whole variety of complex technical tasks for which they have no training. They have to organize their data and, unless they want to lose it, back it up regularly. They have to keep multiple software programs updated, and make sure they work together. They have to keep their hardware updated to keep up with the latest software, which frequently involves simply buying new hardware and discarding the old, with all its toxic heavy metals. And more and more, they have to keep important data — emails, documents, etc. — synchronized among multiple devices (home computer, work computer, PDA, etc.).
If we weren’t so used to it, this would strike everyone as absurd. It’s grossly energy inefficient, both in terms of physical hardware and time invested. It guarantees millions of tons of toxic waste and literally billions of hours of frustrating labor.
The thin-client model is simple: The idea is that all your programs and data live online. You can access all your stuff — your "desktop," as it’s now known — from any internet-connected device (client). Services you once had to take care of yourself — backing up data, keeping software upgraded, synchronizing across devices — are provided by professionals. You spend more time completing tasks and less time on maintenance and troubleshooting.
The main thing holding back the thin-client model right now is bandwidth — it’s frustrating to work with stuff online when there are time lags as data is sent back and forth. But as high-speed broadband becomes more ubiquitous, this barrier is rapidly falling.
If you’ve heard the hype about "Web 2.0," that’s what it is: A huge surge of innovation behind creating web-based tools that will eventually replace desktop tools. Just to take one example, I’ve started using Writely, an online word processor. It’s not as full-featured as Word (yet), but it’s incredibly convenient and allows multiple people to collaborate on a document without emailing copies back and forth. Gmail rivals any desktop email application. There are hundreds of online calendar services. Flickr is one of many sites that will store and display your photos (MyImager.com will let you edit them online). Pandora allows you to find and listen to music. Data-storage services like Foldershare are increasingly common. Almost all of it is free. Sooner or later, probably sooner, you will simply have no need for a bulky, hot, polluting desktop computer with hard drives, memory sticks, fans, etc.
Along with Sun, the big mover to watch here is Google, which has long since gone beyond being a search company. Much feverish speculation has it that Google is eventually going to build an entire online operating system to compete directly with Microsoft. The company denies it, but there are big things going on behind the scenes there.
If Google does succeed in implementing a thin-client system, they could be responsible for a huge, huge reduction in waste. It won’t just mean much less hardware purchased and discarded. It will mean incredibly easy, convenient telecommuting — access to all your programs and data, from anywhere, any time.
I do love it when my green interests and my geek interests overlap.