Our Year in the Cloud?

I have been thinking about the trend towards really small and really cheap laptops — Netbooks, as they are referred to — and their use of web-based applications for productivity. I had our IT group order a Netbook (from Dell) before the Holiday break so we can start to better understand the overall affordances of underpowered, cheap, portable machines that manage to do the things most students really need to do relatively easily.

Students tell us that they spend a majority of their computing time checking email, updating Facebook profiles, and logging into ANGEL for course related stuff. We also know that most (upwards of 90%) of our students come to campus with laptops only to leave them behind in their dorms or apartments. They claim they are too big and heavy to carry, the batteries sort of suck, that our classroom desks don’t support them appropriately, and that we don’t put power where they need it. This could all be set to change this year with the introductions of not just hardware that fits their lifestyles, but cloud-based services that are ready to compete with desktop applications.

If you walk into a Target store (or go online) you’ll see sub $500.00 Netbooks mixed in with the iPods and digital cameras. This is a shift from the notion that computers are something special, not just another piece of consumer electronics. I told several people before the Holiday that I thought we’d see a decent percentage of our students return from the break with newly purchased Netbooks just waiting to see how they run in our (and their) enterprise. As long as they can install the PSU Cisco VPN they’ll be able to connect to the wireless network in most places, so I am guessing they will want to find ways to take advantage of the new machine sitting in front of them.

Asus EEE

Asus EEE Next to Tissue Package

They already indicate they spend a lot of time on Facebook (23% of the students who use FB at PSU report spending more than 5 hours a week on it), so I am guessing they are really familiar and comfortable with the idea of storing things in the cloud … even if they don’t fully understand what is going on. This is an indication that if a service emerges that makes their lives more meaningful they will adopt it quickly. This is constitutes an opportunity for us to market some of our emerging services to a new set of eyes and ears (I am thinking of Blogs at PSU and Adobe Connect in particular).

I am betting the use of Google Docs is rising, but is still relatively small compared to Microsoft Office — with an ultra-portable that will change. Right now I am guessing most students still write in traditional analog notebooks — with an ultra-portable that may change. The adoption of collaborative tools by faculty has been slowly increasing, but with more students able to actively participate online while in a classroom we’ll see a sharp increase there as well. Will the Netbook prove to be the tipping point towards greater utilization of the online services many of us spend quite a bit of time taking advantage of? I am betting on yes.

Aside from Netbooks, the notion of the really powerful hand held device is set to explode as well. The iPhone and now the iPod Touch have emerged as real computing platforms. There are limitations for doing much of the work a student needs to do in a classroom — namely typing — but that is merely a hack or a dock away from being taken care of. I almost wonder if the Netbook is a little late to the party … will iPhones and iPod Touches get the market share first? Perhaps, but no matter how you slice it up the landscape on our campuses is starting to change in a radical way and it is a real opportunity for us to promote technology for teaching and learning in new ways.

air_smallI spent at least half of this past year living mostly on a MacBook Air and I have been very happy with my transition to a mostly cloud based portable experience. I don’t have Office, Adobe PhotoShop, or many other large apps running on it — and I don’t miss them one bit. I have adopted Google Docs, learned how to use Apple’s built in Preview App and iPhoto to do image editing, taken lots of notes in Evernote, listened to my music online at La La, and have used this space and my PSU blog as an outboard brain with much success. I’ve found relying on local storage as being a limiting factor — and I am betting that more and more students will move in this direction this year. We are finally seeing the alignment of hardware, interest, and online services come into focus … I think this could be the year we all start to really get it. Anyone have any thoughts?

8 thoughts on “Our Year in the Cloud?

  1. Cole,

    Having spent the last year glued to my iPhone, and dreaming about it in my sleep, and yearning for it whenever I leave it out of my hands for more than ten minutes, my vote is clearly for the iPhone.

    But it’s not just the sexy hardware that determines my vote. It’s the unparalleled distribution platform that is iTunes, and the Cocoa framework and SDK that makes being an iPhone programmer a realistic option for a 15 year old, or more likely 3 dudes with an idea. And it’s the policy that significant revenue makes it to the developer rather than reseller. The cool stuff is going to happen on the iPhone, because the developer talent is hanging out there.

    Happy New Year!!!

    • I think it is a platform that is going to change the way lots of people think about computing. Tablet PCs have not caught on around our campus — other than with a few faculty in Engineering and Earth and Mineral Sciences I don’t see many of them. Netbooks have real potential, but I do like the iPhone and App Store model … there is something very smart about a well conceived and executed native application. When it takes advantage of the form factor, touch screen, and motion sensors things really come together. I see a lot more people with only an iPhone in meetings these days … if someone did release a nice portable keyboard I think we’d see something big happen in classrooms!

  2. the problem with the cloud is that if you don’t have a connection, or your connection drops, EVERYTHING disappears. Working offline becomes impossible, or merely tedious and error prone. Google Gears is a step in the right direction, but until I can treat my Google Docs like a mountable, syncable volume ala Mobile Me (nee .Mac, nee iTools) where I can edit files anywhere, any time, and just trust that changes get pushed online when a connection is available, I won’t be able to just turn over my entire document collection to The Cloud.

    • I agree that not having access to the web is a killer, but with the rise of 3G connectivity (in the States at least) this is becoming less of an issue. With an iPhone it isn’t an issue and I can be honest when I say I am really never without access — I am lucky in that I have a 3G wireless cell modem for my Air. I know lots of people on the PC side who have ThinkPads with built in 3G cards … that has to be coming soon as a BTO option on the MacBook (Pro/Air) I would think. The funny thing is that I have a Mobile Me account and I don’t use my iDisk b/c it so damn slow. I opt for DropBox instead as it keeps a synced local version ready for me on all my machines. I am also not suggesting we turn over our entire collection to the Cloud … seems the only way to really do it is to have another machine that manages it all for us and use the Cloud for things we need here and there. I use Aperture as my local photo store and treat Flickr as a cloud based repository for my best pictures. I think students will still have a big laptop/desktop for gaming and other higher end needs, but will begin to carry a smaller device for classroom/mobile computing tasks — it may be a handheld though in the long run with cell connectivity.

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  5. I have two netbooks that I am trying out. I have an Acer AspireOne and the EEE (above). I like the Acer unit for what it is. The EEE is nice for browsing but I ran out of hard drive space trying update apps. I have been trying to edit video with the Acer because that is the next big thing for Ed students. It worked pretty go for video, but one thing I did notice is that it slows down when trying to use anything Java. WebCT Vista taxes the unit. I also use ScreenToaster and it slow trying to use the java applet. I have been using it Microsoft mesh to sync with my MAC mini at home. That has been working well so far. The iPhone is nice, but I am using a nokia n810 Internat tablet. It is great to take to meeting and take notes with either a bluetooth keyboard or my roll up rubberized keyboard.

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