Most of the companies backing the cloud, from EMC to IBM, are focused like lasers on the back end. But the cloud also means changes on the client side. The cloud suggests the growth of focused clients, even thinner than the initial idea of thin clients in that they would do a limited number of things well and not be intended to replace PCs, but to supplement them.
Netbooks were initially thought to be the first instance of this kind of a device, but they grew up fast and, the netbook class of products has converged with laptops, making it unlikely as a perfect cloud client anyway. Coming next year are smartbooks, initially based on the Android version of Linux, but the first focused clients to hit were smartphones, with Apple first to market with what appeared to a near-ideal offering, the surprisingly good iPhone.
However, while we were all looking the other way, HP's printer division may have created the first in a wave of devices that comes even closer to the ideal with its Web-connected printer.
HP's Cloud Printer
While this printer won't be out until the fall and is initially targeted at homes and very small businesses, the concept behind it could easily grow into an enterprise solution in either a private or public cloud environment.
The printer follows the current HP PC group design in that it is largely black with silver accents. It looks much more modern than the current line, though is still a little boxy compared to Samsung, which leads the class in design. It is a 3-in-1 design, which means it prints, scans and faxes.
But what sets the HP printer apart is a large iPhone-like display on the front that runs atop a Linux-based platform that connects it to the cloud. Using an HP TouchSmart-like interface, this operating platform is then connected to a variety of software-as-a-service and/or cloud-based applications, which add more functions.
Demonstrated applications included Fandango ticketing, coupon printing, and printable games and activities for adults and children such as Sudoku and connect-the-dots. In addition, news mashups were demonstrated in which the printer would print a custom "newspaper" collected from a variety of sites based on the interests of the user.
The model, much like the iPhone, is based on an increasing variety of applications that could include boarding passes, daily mental exercises, expense reports that would be auto filled out and simply require boxes checked before being scanned back for submission (I hate expense reports), or a picture sent by a loved one that could provide an inexpensive alternative to a networked digital picture frame.
Additional Cloud Devices Incoming: Is This Linux's Big Revolution?
We are at the beginning of a wave of ever-more connected devices based on services that will be cloud-based. Web-connected digital frames have already hit the market and appliances tied to smart-grid services are on their way. TVs are increasingly becoming connected as are Blu-ray DVD players and even automobiles. We've had the emergence of a new kind of server based on a plug configuration that is very thin, power-efficient and focused on a single task.
Connected home-security camera systems are increasing as well, and we are increasingly surrounded by a network of cameras capturing all we do and reporting it someplace.
The majority of these devices are running Linux in an embedded form with game systems and Apple TV being some of the few exceptions. It would increasingly seem this is Linux's growing success, and it is fascinating that this success appears to be happening organically and far from the influence of Linux's strongest backers.
In the end, we are likely seeing a beginning of a change that, much like the PC, is starting in the consumer space but will shortly cross over into business products and applications.
The Rebirth of Appliance Computing
Ever since the PC matured, the market has been asking for a much less complex and more appliance-like solution to problems. I think we are seeing the birth of exactly that and when a company of the size and breadth of HP enters a space, you have to believe that the change will accelerate sharply as others see what HP has done and start to apply the lessons to other devices. This change is just beginning and I doubt any of us really know where it will end..