Interesting new PC shapes and concepts promise to accelerate our drive toward virtual computing. They're desktops, portables, even memory sticks with names like FlipStart, iMac, MojoPac and Zonbu. Invariably thin and light, they're not meant to operate as lone computing devices. Rather, they rely on the web for much of their functionality.
Meet your new PC--the endpoint. The net has finally become the PC, an idea some superrich somebodies had a decade ago and lost a bunch of money on. So? PC users didn't live with one foot in the virtual world then, and web infrastructure and computer subsystems weren't anything like they are today.
Component miniaturization, free open source software and logarithmic growth in web services combine in new PCs like the paperback-size Zonbu. Relying on the web for its hard drive, the 5-pound brick fits in the palm of your hand. But mobility isn't its primary goal; Zonbu's creators wanted to build a PC that was both cheap and green. Add your own keyboard, display and mouse to the CPU-only Zonbu, which costs as little as $99 with a two-year online storage contract (as low as $13 a month for 25GB). Zonbu's Linux OS is housed on a 4GB CompactFlash card, along with 20 open source applications like the OpenOffice.org productivity suite and a Firefox browser.
Instead of the standard 200-watt gulps, Zonbu takes 9-watt sips of electricity and is religiously carbon-emission neutral. Ohhhhm. But even we major carbon consumers can appreciate Zonbu's complete silence (no hard drive or fan) and reduced levels of Windows' hassle emissions. There's no system configuration, license management, drive defragmentation or constant updating of multiple layers of malware protection--no Windows Mega-Patch Tuesdays!
But Zonbu is a squat little box. If it's style you're looking for--and you have $1,200 to spend--where else to turn but Apple Inc.? Its newest line of iMacs are the sleekest desktops ever and will run Windows software. A CPU, hard drive and more are somehow poured into a 20- or 24-inch display balanced on a wire-thin L stand. Add Apple's new wireless keyboard and mouse, and you have a computer that barely casts a shadow on your desk.
Want web access to go? New feather-weights like the OQO model 02 and FlipStart can keep you connected wherever you roam at speeds of up to 1.4Mbps and 3.1Mbps, respectively. Weighing in at a pound and some change, each squeezes Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and even wide-area EV-DO into handhelds that measure less than 6 by 5 inches. They slide easily into a pocket or purse but include displays large enough for a full-size web browser. The heaviest part of either is the price tag: $1,299 and up.
Still too much PC to carry? How about a USB 2.0 memory stick packing the new MojoPac virtual PC environment and a copy of your entire Windows desktop? Plug the MojoPac stick into any PC and compute from MojoPac's secure environment without changing a single setting on the host. It's very similar to the U3 environment with one critical difference: MojoPac works with the Microsoft Office Suite.
Still too heavy for you? If you can lift a user ID and password, you can keep all your files on a virtual application site like Zoho. Log into its Microsoft Office-compatible suite from any broadband PC you can find.
Traditional PCs aren't going away-- they're just becoming terminals into that ultimate virtual PC in the sky: the web.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.