Thick or thin

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been trying a new experiment. Now that I’ve embraced the “netbook lifestyle,” I thought I’d see what this cloud computing thing was really all about. While I have Microsoft Office 2007 loaded on my HP Mini-Note, I thought I’d try Google apps instead.

The way I see it, there’s two different paradigms to use with netbooks.

  1. Thin client, or web-based. Using web-based applications and living out of the browser. This has become much more feasible than it used to be, and others have made a pretty good go of using only Firefox for all their computing needs. And thanks to Google Gears, you can even work offline (albeit with some pretty significant limitations).
  2. Thick client, or what used to be called client-server computing. Here you use traditional desktop software and either store your data in the cloud or sync your data through the cloud to other PCs.

Technically there is a third option, just using the netbook like any other computer and not using networked data at all, but where’s the fun in that?

The most popular option, at least among the technorati, is option one. Google’s office suite (Gmail, Docs, Notebook, Calendar) does a pretty good job of replacing heavier client-side apps like Microsoft Office or OpenOffice. And if you’re using a computer designed to be online all the time, why not use online tools?

Supplementing Google’s suite with a few additional services like Remember The Milk for task management and ScribeFire‘s Firefox plugin for blogging, I tried this out for a week. I even ditched Exchange on my Treo and used GooSync and MilkSync along with Gmail’s IMAP service to use Google services on Windows Mobile (which works, but not as well as Android, alas). I used Gears to allow offline use in RTM, Docs, etc. And it worked, sorta.

I tried to like it, I really did. And the integration between Google Docs, Notebook and iGoogle is pretty compelling. I was able to keep my documents online and editing them was fast and easy. I expect I’d like Google Docs a lot more if I was doing any active collaboration, it looks really good for that. But the limitations got to me. You can’t create a new document in Google Docs when you’re offline, among other things.

Because that’s what really made the decision for me. It’s easy to get online with a netbook, but it’s not a given. I’ve found that WiFi hotspots are far more common that I would have suspected, but they’re not everywhere. I can tether my netbook to my Treo pretty easily, but that involves a cable (I can’t seem to get it working with Bluetooth or WiFi, even with PdaNet), which means a stable setup where I’m going to be for a while. For quick work, jotting something down quickly (10 minutes or less) setting up a cellular internet connection is too much of a hassle. And as a result, I wasn’t using my netbook as often as I could have.

If I was using an even smaller netbook, like the Asus eee 700 series with just 4GB of flash and pretty much instant-on Linux, I’d be more inclined to make web-based apps work. But I have an XP-based netbook with a 120GB hard drive. I have the ability to use local storage, local software and the full power of Windows. Why not use it along with the best of cloud computing? (and yes, there is a vision for more, but I’ll get to that in another article)

So instead of living in the clouds, I’ve got a core group of local software that ties into the cloud for storage and sync, allowing me to work offline with no compromises when I have to, but have all the benefits of the net when can. I’ll detail my set up soon, but for now, how are you using cloud computing?

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