The heart of a computer is now the network connection

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.

39 Responses to The heart of a computer is now the network connection (Leave a comment)

  1. Matt,

    I agree. The first time I used Gmail and could pick up email right where I left off when I got home without syncing or anything I was hooked. Google Docs, especially with App scripting is a whole beautiful frontier of productivity. One question, do you think we will see the processing side shift back to the client and the cloud used more for storage and delegation?


  2. I had to take my laptop in to get repaired last week and had to use an old desktop. Thanks to Dropbox, Evernote, Wunderlist, iCloud and Google Apps, I didn’t skip a beat. That would have been unheard of years ago. And I too have had my own share of catastrophic data loss, but now thanks to automated backup services like Backblaze, Arq (which uses S3) and Time Capsule, I don’t worry about my data being backed up either. Even with that though, I still prefer a fast CPU, lots of RAM and an SSD. Especially when running non-browser based apps. I suppose if I was using a Chromebook Pixel (like I think you’ve said you use) that wouldn’t matter as much, but I simply can’t/won’t make that leap yet.

  3. I used to dream of the day when everything would be in the cloud and my computer would just be like one of the green screen terminals we used in the 90’s when I sold computers at Best Buy.

    I think there’s a missing RAM stage in there somewhere too, but I’m not sure if it fits between cpu and HD or HD and network connection.

    Now though, the cloud worries me. Especially in light of recent NSA findings. I don’t use my computer for anything illegal (I haven’t even pirated music or software this decade – seriously) but I still don’t trust storing my data in the cloud where it’s so vulnerable to hackers or or government can easily access it with a subpoena.

    Sure, my computer is easier to break into than Google’s, but there’s infinitely less people trying to hack me than there are trying to hack Google. Call me a luddite, but I like the information and data security of being in control of my own data.

    Until companies can convince me that my data is safe for prying eyes and govt access, and until they can assure me that the service won’t randomly shut down, I’ll still keep the sensitive stuff on my own hard drive.

    • I don’t consider that being a luddite at all. I consider that being cautious and intelligent. Why expose things when you don’t have to?

      While I understand first-hand what a pain in the a$$ recovering data from a failing hard drive is, putting a RAID1 card in solves most of that pain by itself (two hard drives can go at once or at close to the same time, but it’s pretty unlikely), without the need for any other backup. An off-site backup solution (e.g. an FTP account on a private server) can do the rest. So the need for something like say Google Docs or Dropbox, although I use both, is reduced to sharing rather than as a backup source, which is how it should be. If it’s our private data, we as the end users of that data have a responsibility to ourselves to take our own precautions rather than relying on a company to do that for us.

  4. I’m more concerned about Google shutting down Docs (like they’re doing with Reader tomorrow) or arbitrarily deleting my account than I am about any hard drive failure.

    • @Peter – thats always the problem with 3rd party providers. You never know what they have in store for the future. I would use the cloud for sharing documents only, but not for sensitive stuff.

      @Matt – you are right in saying that network connections became the heart of the computer, but only because there are so many small ones now. Every little iphone or Android is a worthless computer without a network connection. Just think about what users are doing (or trying to do) with them. Without interenet access it wouldn’t work.
      A big deal of applications, that business users and home users run, still requires something like a decent computer and local storage. When I do video or photo editing, I need the performance of my workhorse at home with its speedy HD and lots of RAM. Backups is secured via a NAS, which I can also access from the outside, so if I really need it, i can switch on my personal cloud.

      When you say that you do 98% of your work in front of a browser, I don’t see this as a trend that you can translate to the general public, but more related to your position at Google.
      Even though google docs became quite popular, I am pretty sure that businesses (at least larger ones) prefer not to store confidential and/or vital documents with a 3rd party like google docs.
      All the best!

  5. Just saw this post in Google Reader July 1 2013, 1:14 AM EST
    I’m assuming the July 1 closing date is PST, 1 hour and 45 minutes to go before Google kills Reader 🙁

  6. I was able to remember the time when we got a 166Mhz – 200Mhz CPU and you feel good about it because it was the fastest CPU. You can do multitasking and have a lot of fun by installing the best games you can install. Right now computer had innovated a lot and I believe Google is changing the way we use to store our files. I believe that network is something we can rely on especially when we have many important files to keep.

    • I felt grateful to own a Pentium II chip at that time, my OS was running Windows98 SE and just upgraded from EDO ram, I still class this OS as one of Microsoft’s most stable OS along with Windows 8. Makes you wonder just how far we are going to be to push technology, maybe in the direction Ray Kurzweil suggests.

  7. What happens if your connection goes? Or if you live in a part of the world where internet access is unreliable or not available?

  8. Are you saying “The Network is the Computer”? You may owe Oracle a royalty.

  9. Remember the marketing catch phrase of the 1990s at Sun Microsystems: the network IS the computer?

  10. I really agree that the most important element of computing and any digital device is now its network connection and capabilities, everything these days seems to want to connect to the internet. With interfaces like Google docs its great to be able to access your files all from an online location but i do not personally like to maintain the documents via docs I always prefer to do that locally although if docs spreadsheets ran faster and other online office suites worked as well as running locally, then I would probably keep more files in the cloud. That said I still think majority of people have a security issue with this and people don’t want to keep all their information and files in the cloud.

  11. Jeanette R. McGuire

    I’m going to take this advice. Thank you.

  12. This might be the first time I’ve been ahead of Matt Cuts on anything: I remember the days of 28K modems and not being online whenever the computer was on and when I wasn’t connected way back THEN I felt like the computer was literally broken, it was upsetting to me in a visceral way. I loved the feeling of possibility, of exploration and discovery that comes from being inter-connected with nearly all of humanity, even IF I don’t speak all those other languages.

  13. Valid take on cloud storage and cloud computing… But, even though many (or most) people these days seem to believe the cloud (or internet even) can’t go down or be hit by a very aggressive virus-attack – it will inevitably happen. At some point in the future. May be 2, 5, 10 or 50 years. Who knows, bt one day the system will fail or someone clever enough, take it down. May be a single person, but could also be a malicious government doing it.

    … true, data is encrypted, but Microsoft/Skype apparantly just hands over those encryption “keys to the kingdom” to a US government that seems more and more to behave IRL like the worst wet dream of any YouTube Illuminati conspiracy theorist.

    I will always want to store my data locally. I do like cloud storage, but both local and cloud storage are necessary.

    I do agree with you Matt regarding internet connection speed being the new bottleneck.


  14. “The era of the hard drive lasted for a decade or so…”

    I disagree Matt. The hard drive is still here, and is here to stay, at least for another decade or so. I guess I am one of those who likes to have full control of my data and I, like others, are the modern equivalents of ‘grandma stashing her savings under her matress’.

    I use my Mac HD as well as portable HD, the whole Cloud Storage thing, I have just not bought into yet.

  15. Agree with your claim but not totally. Network cannot be the only factor…

  16. Storing all of your important files in Google Drive now makes it easier for Google to give the feds access to all your data. How convenient!!

  17. I think the world has come full circle now. When I first started programming and servicing computes in the late 70’s the only choice was a mainframe or mini with multiple terminals. The industry moved to localized computing with local storage starting in the mid-80’s and it lasted up until just a few years ago. Now with the cloud we are all moving back to the ‘mainframe’ mentality, giving up local control of our data and privacy. I’m sure one day when the hackers manage to bring down and major service for an extended period of time, the shift back to localized computing will begin once again.

  18. I agree with Jim about this i also believe the world has come full circle and one day we will shift back to how things use to be done, thanks for the article Matt interesting comments by readers.

  19. Hey guys .. I’m just sorry .. but I don’t store anything in the cloud.

    I depend on myself and accept full and total responsibility for my drives and the client accounts that exist on them. I’m not Google by any stretch, but I do know where to draw the line on computing. I don’t own or run slaves .. back in the day at Bell, we all used “slaves” .. tied to the one main in the dungeon .. I’ve been thru the 80’s and I would rather not go back ..

    If I can’t own it, then I don’t want it.


    • In the 90’s, I did as well…fortunately, this was never in a work environment. I took programming throughout high school on Unisys ICON dumb terminals hooked up to a server in another area of the computer lab. A friend of mine had a pair of his assignments wiped out when the teacher accidentally deleted them off of the server. In both cases, they were done and due the day the teacher wiped them out.

      Needless to say, anyone who knows this friend became paranoid about backing anything up from that point forward whenever we can. Even if it’s on an old 3.5″ floppy, it’s still better than “the cloud” as the sole host of information.

  20. I think they used to call it ‘thin client’ didn’t they? I love not having to sync manually or backup mail folders (since I moved to Google apps some years ago). I still store files on my pc but anything important is also in Dropbox in case of hard drive failures or theft. However, I don’t believe in running all programs online, I still prefer ‘word’ and ‘excel’ as locally installed applications on my machine. Maybe the day will come when this does not feel the best way to work but right now it does.

  21. I tried leaving messages on this thread before… but they never get through? Maybe I’m not worthy? Anyway…. here goes…

    Back in the 90’s (91 to be precise) I worked for 2 weeks on a spreadsheet that was stored on my office Mac’s hard drive. And just as I was finishing building this master piece that would have launched my company career….. you guessed it… my hard drive crashed! The moral of the story is… no form of storage is 100%… not even your hard disk, floppy disk, dvd disk, or even the Cloud disk…. however… if I had to say now where I would have preferred to have had that spreadsheet stored…. I would have said through my network… on some backed up server (or the Cloud)

    I have been using Google Drive for years and never lost anything… It could do with a lick of paint… but its good at what it does.

  22. I disagree. I think it’s neive to get too comfortable with ‘it’s on my cloud and can be accessed from anywhere!”. One the day when some major cloud host goes bust/the owner steals data/a fire in the server room – takes place, people will not be so relaxed.

    Also a good CPU is essential for those that create video/art/ design or have many programmes that must work all at once.

  23. “But would you want a computer that couldn’t browse the web, do email, or watch YouTube videos? Not likely.”

    Isn’t that like asking are you happy with a black and white TV 🙂

  24. I Agree, computer without connection, like fish without water. Like me without air. 🙂

  25. Hey Matt,
    I was going through your blog and got to this page
    I got a warning from my avast saying treat has been detected on that link, you may want to check out the page 🙂 , don’t know if it’s an infection or not because my antivirus blocked the page

  26. Your network speed is important if you move files around a lot. In my opinion however, what matters now are still the HDD, since you can get SSDs which are very fast and stable, RAMs and graphic cards. I want my computer to move fast when doing anything, and a fast network card or connection can’t do that.

  27. Matt, I cannot agree with you on this.

    Most of my work and most people that use computers for actually doing work, still rely on CPU and little is done on intensive applications online.

    Example: Photoshop, MS WORD, EXCEL are all off the CPU

  28. I agree with Peter. I am more concerned about one of these companies denying me access to my information on a whim that I am about my hard drive crashing.

  29. Totaly agree matt, I used to have 1 TB HDD now its only 500 GB and the rest online.

  30. Google has definitely take the long view and pushed the world of computing towards that end, which is definitely a smart business move and will probably be ideal for the majority of users. We as a society value progress, innovation, and information much more than we value privacy, introversion, and disconnect.

  31. Michael Salafia

    Agreed Matt. After working with most of the major website hosting companies, I’ve personally seen how unreliable some cloud server technology can really be. Also how venerable it is to attacks. Really 100% on cloud storage solutions can set you up for major problems. With that being said, using the cloud for temporary storage and data exchanges is one of the best parts of computing today. If a new startup came out offering military grade encryption on highly reliable cloud servers for personal storage with dead simple cross platform accessibility, it would be a timely Dropbox alternative.

  32. Matt Cutts encourages cloud usage as part of Google-NSA’s customer service motto: “You speak, we listen.”

  33. Hi Matt..thank you very much MASTER.