Way back in 1995, Larry Ellison predicted that stripped down network computers would replace PCs. He argued that computers had become too complicated, too hard to maintain and that most tasks could be accomplished with a simple device running rudimentary software, connected to the internet. Appliances have not replaced PCs, but consumer computing is going in exactly the direction he predicted.
Computers are, by any measure, a poorly designed consumer product. Removing a single file can render the computer unbootable, and unlike, for example, a car, where the innards are protected by a hood and dashboard, the modern computer operating system has the consumer working side by side with system files and other critical settings.
Most consumer use their computer for email, web surfing, music, and personally created photos and videos. What we are starting to see, and will see more of, are good network-based services to provide these functions.
For email, there is Gmail. You can run it from anywhere, it prefetches and caches content on your local computer, and is reasonably responsive to user input.
For music, today, many consumers are using iTunes. How long will it be before Apple lets you re-download a song that you previously purchased using your apple login? At that point the computer has becomes a cache of your music, versus the master copy.
For personally created photos and videos, we naturally see Phanfare as the solution. You manage your photos and vidoes using a full featured desktop application that can leverage the power of your local machine, get access to the fullsize originals, but can move from computer to computer without moving your data. Friends can view the content via any web browser.
For consumers, the Personal Computer is becoming the Network Computer. PCs will be used to access network services and cache network content, but the master copy of the content will live on the network.
Consumers are much better served using only network-based services. The network services can handle backups and data integrity and are administered by professionals. Meanwhile the personal computer becomes merely a cache of the content available on the network, and hence the stakes are much lower for keeping the PC running. If it fails, or is upgraded, you maintain access to your entire computing environment on a new computer.
Given how difficult it is for the average consumer to manage their own computer (PC or Mac), making the PC the network terminal versus the master copy makes perfects sense. How happy consumers will be that they can literally take a hammer to their PCs and get complete access to their environment by going to a new PC.
For disconnected access, the computers will offer cached local manipulation and synch when you next see the network (much like Outlook can accomplish using Exchange).
Corporate computer users at big companies have for years enjoyed this type of arrangement for their computers. Their files and email are stored on network servers, their login works throughout the organization and their local computer holds mostly applications.
Larry Ellison saw this trend in 1995, but he did not realize that Windows PCs and Macs would morph into perfectly acceptable network computers.