Light operating systems and cloud computing are the final nails in the coffin of traditional practices, says Bob Morris.
Computers and phones have changed dramatically over the past 30 years. Internet use is no longer restricted to one terminal per office, web access is almost universal, and laptops are a fraction of their former size, yet have far greater capabilities.
But it is only recently that the cloud and light operating systems have offered the functionality people want from their mobile devices without the need for high power. According to figures from regulator Ofcom, more than two million new connections to mobile broadband were made between February 2008 and February 2009. That trend looks set to continue as consumers grow accustomed to accessing the web on the move.
With easy access to browsing, the distinctions between desktop computers, laptops and mobile phones have blurred. Phones are becoming sophisticated computing devices. At the same time, netbooks are becoming smaller and turning into smartbooks, a new category of device that was in evidence at Computex in Asia in June.
The demand for mobile broadband is driving the development of lightweight, compact mobile devices. That trend is in turn being fed by developments in cloud computing and the design of lighter operating systems, which are giving these devices all the functionality needed by a demanding consumer, but without the drain on power.
Interest in cloud services is growing as trusted brands develop more web-based services. Google offers people the benefits of universal accessibility through services such as Google Docs and Gmail, while Microsoft has developed its Business Productivity Online Suite. As more familiar names move services into the cloud, businesses will adopt them.
Cloud services are also being driven by a pay-as-you-go trend, as organisations look for ways of quickly scaling up and down computing needs in times of economic instability and to maximise efficiencies.
Cloud computing is changing the technical demands on mobile devices. MS Office used to be the standard for business and home users, which required a considerable amount of power. All documents and information would be stored and backed up on your particular machine.
Now, web-based applications are reducing the burden on operating systems by storing data and applications remotely. That development means devices run faster while next-generation netbooks or smartbooks, or even smartphones, offer the functionality and applications needed by users.
The increasing popularity of inexpensive low-power netbooks shows people are now less concerned about brand and power capabilities and more about the functionality of a device. Interest in operating systems is restricted to what they enable devices to do and how easy applications are to use.
Light Linux-based systems such as Ubuntu and Chrome require less power, allowing a user to benefit from longer battery life, even through a low-power device.
Netbooks or smartbooks are affordable, and will become even cheaper as product volumes increase — which they surely will over the next two years. If a business supplied each member of a 100-strong workforce with a netbook rather than a laptop and adopted cloud-based computing for aspects of its operations, the cost savings would quickly become apparent.
Continual internet access is now a necessity, as is a business's constant availability to its customers. As office walls grow ever more fluid and more work is done on the move, so the need for flexible applications and devices has grown.
MS Office and Windows will always have a place in enterprise but for now, low-power devices and lighter operating systems are continuing to revolutionise computing for the masses.
Bob Morris is director of mobile computing at microprocessor design company ARM.