In his book What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly observed “computers are becoming ever more general-purpose machines as they swallow more and more functions. Entire occupations and their workers’ tools have been subsumed by the contraptions of computation and networks. You can no longer tell what a person does by looking at their workplace, because 90 percent of employees are using the same tool — a personal computer. Is that the desk of the CEO, the accountant, the designer, or the receptionist? This is amplified by cloud computing, where the actual work is done on the net as a whole and the tool at hand merely becomes a portal to the work. All portals have become the simplest possible window — a flat screen of some size.”
Although I am an advocate for cloud computing and cloud-based services, sometimes I can’t help but wonder if cloud computing is turning our personal computers back into that simplest of all possible windows that we called the dumb terminal.
Twenty years ago, at the beginning of my IT career, when I was a mainframe production support specialist, my employer gave me a dumb terminal to take home for connecting to the mainframe via my dial-up modem. Since I used it late at night when dealing with nightly production issues, the aptly nicknamed green machine (its entirely text-based display used bright green characters) would make my small apartment eerily glow green, which convinced my roommate and my neighbors that I was some kind of mad scientist performing unsanctioned midnight experiments with radioactive materials.
The dumb terminal was so-called because, when not connected to the mainframe, it was essentially a giant paperweight since it provided no offline functionality. Nowadays, our terminals (smartphones, tablets, and laptops) are smarter, but in some sense, with more functionality moving to the cloud, even though they provide varying degrees of offline functionality, our terminals get dumbed back down when they’re not connected to the web or a mobile network, because most of what we really need is online.
It can even be argued that smartphones and tablets were actually designed to be dumb terminals because they intentionally offer limited offline data storage and computing power, and are mostly based on a mobile-app-portal-to-the-cloud computing model, which is well-supported by the widespread availability of high-speed network connectivity options (broadband, mobile, Wi-Fi).
Laptops (and the dwindling number of desktops) are the last bastions of offline data storage and computing power. Moving more of those applications and data to the cloud would help eliminate redundant applications and duplicated data, and make it easier to use the right technology for a specific business problem. And if most of our personal computers were dumb terminals, then our smart people could concentrate more on the user experience aspects of business-enabling information technology.
Perhaps the return of the dumb terminal is a smart idea after all.