Back in the 90s, the heart of a computer was the CPU. The faster the CPU, the better the computer was–you could do more, and the speed of the CPU directly affected your productivity. People upgraded their computers or bought new ones whenever they could to take advantage of faster CPU speeds.
I remember the point when computers got “fast enough” though. Around 1997 or 1998, computers started hitting 166 MHz or 200 MHz and you could feel the returns diminishing. At some point, the heart of a computer switched from being a CPU to the hard drive. What mattered wasn’t the speed of your Intel or AMD chip, but the data that you had stored on your computer.
The era of the hard drive lasted for a decade or so. Now I think we’re shifting away from the hard drive to the network connection. Or at least the heart of a computer has shifted for me. In 2006 I contemplated a future where “documents sat in a magic Writely [note: now Google Docs] cloud where I could get to them from anywhere.” Sure enough, I keep all my important files in Google Docs now. At this point, if I have a file that sits only on a local hard drive, I get really nervous. I’ve had local hard drives fail. By 2008, I was spending 98% of my time in a web browser.
Don’t get me wrong. Local hard drives are great for caching things. Plus sometimes you want to run apps locally. But for most people, the heart of a computer will soon be its network connection. Ask yourself: could you get by with a minimal hard drive? Sure. Plenty of people store their files on Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, iCloud, or SkyDrive. Or they back up their data with CrashPlan, SpiderOak, Carbonite, or Mozy. But would you want a computer that couldn’t browse the web, do email, or watch YouTube videos? Not likely.