Monday, June 20, 2005

The Google Machine

I have written before about how frustrating it can be to own a computer, and I have had my share of things like hard disk crashes. But this weekend, as I was helping a yet another friend recover from a persistent XP problem, it hit me again -- the world must be wasting millions of man-hours every day on various computer problems. There must be a better way.

The solution lies in the ultimate reductionist strategy -- The Google Machine™. The thing that will fuel the Google Machine is the fact that computing hardware is getting so inexpensive, combined with the fact that broadband connections are nearly ubiquitous.

Here's how the Google Machine will work:
  1. Google sells extremely low-cost machines in places like Wal-Mart. Maybe these machines cost $200 in the desktop version. [It is also possible to imagine a scenario where the hardware is free -- see below.] You can attach USB devices like printers to it if you like.

  2. These machines would behave exactly like video game consoles in that you pull your new Google Machine out of the box, plug it in and it is ready to go with everything pre-loaded. For the user it is truly "plug and play".

  3. The Operating System is remarkably bare bones or non-existent (and it is completely irrelevant to the user). It is possible that these machines would not need hard disks -- the machine might boot from a ROM and then load updates from the network. In that case, the hardware is essentially a cheap motherboard and a cheap processor with some RAM. Or maybe it needs a 20GB disk as a scratchpad/buffer/cache area. The user could care less, but the simplicity of the hardware will keep the cost of the Google Machine way down.

  4. Google redefines the role of the browser. Right now we think or a browser as an application running on a desktop. In Google's definition, the browser is the desktop and it can run web-enabled applications loaded over the Internet as well as viewing web pages.

  5. Google supplies you with all of the applications that you need -- word processors, spreadsheets, photo management, email, etc. etc. These applications come pre-loaded on the machine's hard disk or load from the Web as you need them. However...

  6. ... When you open or save a file, nothing lives on your hard disk. Instead, everything flows between your machine and an Internet file area that Google manages for you (let's call it GoogleSpace). Google might initially give you 10 gigabytes of space to store your documents, photos, videos, songs, etc., and you ask for more space as you need it.

  7. Because all of your files live on the Internet, you can access all of them from anywhere. You are completely freed from the restrictions of a desktop machine. You never have to back your machine up, diddle with the operating system, etc. Your files are safe in GoogleSpace, meaning you never have to worry about them and they are always accessible from wherever you are. Everything is automatic.

  8. In addition, if you ever have a problem, you completely reset your hardware, let it reload a fresh copy of what it needs from the network and then it is fine, OR... you simply throw the hardware away and get a new box. Since every one of your files is stored in GoogleSpace, your files are always safe.
By doing this, all of the problems and hassles that most normal people have with their computers completely evaporate. Your computer becomes an appliance like a TV or a video game console, and you never have to worry about it. Your files are always safe.

How do you pay for it? Google might charge a monthly fee of $20 or $30 per month. In that case, the hardware is likely to be free or extremely inexpensive. Or you buy the hardware and pay maybe $10 per month for the applications and storage space you need.

This solution would work for the vast majority of people who use computers today. It would make their lives significantly better by eliminating all of the problems and data loss that go with owning a desktop machine or laptop.

It would not work for people who are currently playing games like Half-Life 2 on their PCs. However, the culture of PC gaming will shrink anyway because the new batch of consoles will be so much more powerful than a desktop PC. Maybe Google ends up selling its own game console version of the Google Machine (for example, a Google Machine built into an XBox). It is also easy to imagine small wireless handheld versions of the Google Machine that completely replace PDAs. A wireless laptop version would also be available for slightly more than the desktop version.

Google does not have to be the one doing this, although it seems the most likely candidate. Microsoft could pull this off if it had the vision to see the writing on the wall. Apple could do this. Or perhaps a new company forms to do it. Whoever does it is irrelevant, however -- this product is inevitable within the next two to three years. There are simply too many people wasting too much time and spending too much money managing desktop PCs. Owning a computer should not be this hard. Instead, it should be as easy as owning a video game console.

This is a neat idea.

It sort of reminds me of WebTV in a way, where you have a scaled down PC hooked up to your TV which allows you to surf the web and do email, etc.

I know many people who only use thier PCs for web based activities and I think they would be thrilled to have something like this. Especially if the PC was warrantied for life.

Also, there would have to be a high speed interent connection here as well. There might be quality of service issues if you are using a third party provider. You wouldn't want a document file taking 2 hours to upload or something like that.
I would junk my desktop machine and use a Google Machine in a heartbeat. So would my wife.
This would also revolutionize computers in the classroom. Students could work anywhere, and Google MAchines would be so inexpensive that there would be one on every desk.
This is a very old idea, but congrads on coming up with it.
It's the way computers used to work back in the mainframe era.
I began transitioning to something like this a couple of years ago after switching computers. I think of it as "hardware abstraction" - where the hardware becomes abstracted and unnecessary. First I began by archiving all of my files and data onto CD (now DVD). Then I switched all of my personal email to Gmail. Then I transitioned away from any Microsoft Office products or other proprietary apps ( Now if I have to reload my OS or switch computers it takes a couple of hours of installation, rather than days of hair-pulling and data-loss.

I've largely done the same thing at work, although I have more requirement for backups and of course do use proprietary apps.

The way I see it, 'GoogleMachines' already exist - cheap PCs with Windows pre-loaded. Free WindowsUpdates keep the machine running for several years, and it's up to me to separate my data and figure out how to get free useful applications. It's a bit of a pain, but until an actual GoogleMachine exists it sure beats the current paradigm (continually pay for new software, deal with hardware crashes, try to transition to new machines, etc.).
It's an interesting idea. There was a article back in March that talked about a similar idea:

Good-bye, computer; hello, world!
The problem right now is upstream bandwidth. When you buy "broadband" you're really just buying the ability to *download* quickly. Your upload speed is still very slow. When you're storing files on a server, or when you need to upload that 700 meg movie you downloaded, it's going to take too long right now.

However, once people start getting symmetric bandwidth (fiber to the home, etc) then I can certainly see this becoming a viable business.
Some people say it's how mainframe where working or that it is just like network computers of the 90's. But i think they are missing one key difference and you too miss it. In the mainframe way of doing things there is a whole team of people working to maintain the hardware and software. We don't have to do this now.

Let's say all of those computers still have a hard drive. They have a hard drive but they don't use it directly (other than as a cache). The space on the hard drive is shared on a peer 2 peer network. On that network all of your data files resides split and encrypted. So you are also hosting fragment of someone else files. You don't know what they are and don't care. Now we have a self-managed P2P network of computer. Also Let's say you publish the key to decrypt a file, you have published a file everyone can share just like publishing a bittorrent file now. It gets rid of desktop, portable, pda, smart phones and data server as we know them. It leaves us with application servers to host applications to generate the data files we would store on the network.

This idea is not mine it's just the merge of 2 or 3 ideas floating around. Here are those ideas:
OceanStore is project at Berkeley that may become what I describe here.
Baxter is a backup system Robert X. Cringely describe he just didn't go far enough.
Microsoft's Own BitTorrent, an article on Microsoft work in the P2P space.

Do some digging and you'll find more.
Good Gates, there is a simpler solution - buy a Mac!

Since I converted my household to Macs, I estimate that I've saved at least 10-20 hours per month in time that would be spent on system adminstration tasks, degunking, etc....

Not that Macs are totally without issues, but compared to Windows XP, it's an incredible difference and brought back the "joy of computing" into my life.

No fussing and fretting over anti-virus, spyware, malware, goofy registry idiosyncracies, hardware incompatabilities, etc...

I was listening to a PC computer corner show on local radio recently and almost drove off the road when one of the hosts informed the audience that they were going to devote an enitre two hour show to backups. On a mac, it's as simple as inserting a DVD (or connecting iPod, external device) and dragging your home folder onto the destination device icon.
Hi Marshall;

Thanks first of all for being an ongoing source of great, well articulated ideas.

I really enjoy your "as simple as possible but no simpler" writing style. Your way of removing the complexity and jargon while retaining the essence is why I always look forward to your next post.

It's also great to see some fresh light on this subject.

I recall Eric Schmidt talked about the hollowing out of the computer in a similar manner quite a while back. Bob Metcalfe expanded on the concept in his article "The Coming Software Shift".

As our applications inevitably migrate from our computers to the network, the network literally becomes the computer.

This new supercomputer gets faster as bandwidth increases. A completely optical network means bandwidth would approach the speed of light. My computer could use your hardware as seamlessly as mine.

Meanwhile Ray Kurzweils predictions of $1000 of hardware with the processing power of a human brain arising within our lifetimes is also quite conceivable.

These factors, combined with Metcalfe's Law (The power of the network increases exponentially by the number of computers connected to it) all point to an emergent, distributed, networked, increasingly "intelligent" global nervous system.

And we've got front row seats :)

Stay well,

It has been said before with the last console releases but PC gaming will never die. Consoles are stuck in fixed hardware for years while a PC is constantly changing technologies.

The upcoming consoles are based on the best technology available now but will not be available for 6-12 months. By that time the PC hardware cycle will have spun once again to something new and improved. ATI and Nvidia can barely keep from releasing a new GPU every three months.
Netscape was working on something like this back in 90's called Constellation. All your apps would be downloaded from the web and run in the browser. Windows would have been reduced to an icon on the browser "desktop".
I don't think this idea would fly with people who are concerned about privacy. I would not want my documents, home budget, brilliant business plans, etc. stored on some hard drive where someone else could peek at them. Sure, GoogleSpace might say they'd never do that, but how would you really know?

The idea also ignores the fact that a HUGE number of people view porn on their PC's (c'mon, admit it), so these folks probably won't want to store their dirty pics on some mystery hard drive where big brother can see them.

I think a better idea might be to sell an external USB hard drive with the Google system where personal files could be stored. The catch is that this drive would be small... only 4.7 GB, and it would also have a DVD burner built in. When the hard drive became full it would do an "instant backup" to DVD.
Microsoft already has its eyes on this prize with the XBox360.

They envisioned a future in which the Playstation3 would supplant the need for a PC in the home and dove into the console market.

The first XBOX was an exercise to build brand identity and test the console waters. XBOX360 is a trojan horse to make the game console the central hub of the broadband home network.
Why Google???????
can't it be some "open society".

Are you all advertising??????

I do like n use Google.

But why use that name in example. Isn't it advertising. If u r making movie, u would earn a lot from these TM.
Do you want to try something similar to what could be the google machine?

Try, you could use a computer from that is located in italy and works almost as fast as it was your personal computer. I is really difficult to realize that the pc you are using is so far away. Is a concept similar to gotomypc, but faster and smoother.

Here is a screenshot.

I could also browse the web using the browser on that computer and my ip was an italian one!

It also works for Windows

download the software and use the testdrive option to use the italian or german computer is fantastic!
i agree with naum Macs elimate most problems (not all) and the fee woulden't go with Google's concept to orgnise the world's info for free but think about searching you could search every thing inclulding other peple's computer space all info
Very nice work on your blog, It was fun to read! I am still not done reading everything, but I bookmarked you! I really like reading about internet connections and I even have an internet connections secrets blog if you want some more content to discuss.
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I think this is a great product concept for most people. I wouldn't use it though. While the idea of distributing computing power across the nets is an extremely interesting idea, I love owning a general-purpose computer that I can program to do whatever I need. Often times I am using third-party (or open-source) applications to get what I need done, but having the ability to make my processor do EXACTLY what I want it to, without the security, privacy, connection and speed constraints of working on servers that reside god-knows-where.

A Google Machine would work for the way people use computers today, but i think that as computers become more ubiquitous, having general-purpose machines taking over new tasks will be more important. At that point, the game has changed... everything is connected and your documents will be saved on a hard drive under your fingernail, so you'll always have them anyways.

Okay now I've gone too far. But yeah, I really want a fingernail computer now.

I see the Google Machine idea as a reasonable business model, but I think the problem of efficiency is bigger than hardware abstraction. Its a shame that HCI research often lags behind hardware, but the hardware isn't going to stop because the average user is slow at it. The real paradigm shifts wont come from business models, they'll come from technology, vision and culture... maybe with a little bit of interaction design to keep everything together.

Nice post!
This is really stupid and will never happen.
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