Back in my high school days, I wondered why computing wasn’t more portable than it was. Although laptops were popular, they still weren’t that convenient. I myself had a 64MB flash drive that I carried in my backpack that I used to sneak prohibited files onto school computers. It got most of the work done, but it wouldn’t be too much worse to carry around an entire hard drive with me if it could maintain the total state of computer between home and school. This clearly seemed like the dream setup to have: carry around, say, a 1 lbs device that could be plugged into any terminal and give you the exact same setup on any hardware.
In between then and now, I found a pretty good substitute in my Macbook Pro. Coming in at 5.4 pounds, I could carry my life around with me between my dorm room, home, class, library, and wherever else I needed it. It was pretty ideal, and for awhile, I believed that the best way to live was with a single machine. No hassle with trying to sync multiple devices or reconfigure anything: just pick it up and go. My dad insisted that I have a laptop for when I went off to college, and I still agree that this was the easiest way to do things.
Having finished my 4 undergraduate years, though, I’m thinking that this is no longer such a good setup. First, it actually isn’t as wonderfully portable as it could be. When I travel, I have to switch out to use my laptop backpack, and it and peripherals dominate what i can carry. Second, it isn’t very comfortable to use. My current setup has it linked up to an external keyboard and mouse with the actual laptop perched on a board game so that the screen is closer to a comfortable viewing angle. Even better would be a larger external display, but at that point, I’m not using any of the built-in input or output functionality of the laptop.
Third, I don’t actually need to be that portable nowadays. Most of my work is done at desks, and I don’t need a laptop to work at a desk. I don’t go home that often, and the only other time I can think of that I really need a laptop is when I’m working with someone else on, say, a group project. Continuing on that note, my fourth reason is that I probably shouldn’t be carrying my laptop around with me anyways. For the first 2 years of college, I almost never moved my computer from my desk. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say it was less than once a month. It was fine because I wasn’t distracted while I was in class. Beginning my junior year, I started lugging it around, thinking that I would be able to do some work at various times. Inevitably, though, I would find another good distraction and never get around to what I meant to do. And fifth and finally, the specs are very good for the price.
Even though the laptop doesn’t seem to fit my needs as well anymore, it’s okay because my original dream has been accomplished, though perhaps in a form I wasn’t expecting: the cloud. It’s a buzzword, but simply, that complete setup on any hardware exists and is even lighter than I thought it would be. Now, I can sit down at a computer, pull up a few online services, and have access to all of my music, documents, applications, files, and everything else I typically use on a computer. And thanks to Google Chrome syncing, my effective “desktop” is the same everywhere as my bookmarks, extensions, and other browser configuration follow me around.
I’ll get to describing the suite of services I use to do that in another post, but the conclusion that I’ve drawn from this is that I don’t need to carry around a physical object with me to make my computer use portable: I just need the internet, and other than airlines and fancy hotels (the cheap ones always offer free wifi; go figure), wifi is pretty much everywhere I would sit down to use my computer.
Still, there are situations where I would like to carry around a device with me, such as plane rides or trips home, and I’m thinking about getting myself a tablet (specifically, an iPad) to cover my bases there. In many ways, it doesn’t have good features that a PC would have, but I don’t think it needs it. My conception is that using a tablet is a fundamentally different method of computing, and I think I’m willing to take the plunge and see if it works when I get one.
In the meantime, I have stopped carrying my computer back and forth to work, instead leaving it at home as my “desktop” here and using another box at work. I couldn’t quite get away from the convenience of UNIX for development and am learning how to use Ubuntu on it, but in spite of a different operating system, I’m using it in almost the exact same way as my MacBook Pro sitting at home. As for portability, I’m carrying my iPod Touch around with me at all times now after basically leaving it untouched for the past 3 years. It’s limited, but it’s unnoticeable to carry and comes in handy in a few spots.
My transformation isn’t complete, but I’m excited to see how I adapt to this new setup over the next few months while I wait for another round of better hardware to come out. It may not be instantiated exactly as I imagined, but it looks like technology has snaked past the road bump of laptops and passed my dream of portability.