You want the cloud? You can't handle the cloud! Or, more accurately, the cloud can't handle you.
For years, we've been talking about the transition from client-based computing where your data sits only a hard drive to a cloud-based model where your digital stuff is synced to an off-site server and your favorite applications even run off that server. The benefits of cloud computing are many: data can be stored securely and accessed on any device, applications are always up-to-date, and your computer doesn't need much horsepower to perform even the most processor-intensive tasks.
And lately it seems like everyone is hopping aboard the cloud bandwagon, from Google whose upcoming Chrome OS relies on the cloud to OnLive, a new gaming service which runs games remotely. There's just one problem: mobile Internet access remains expensive, slow, and inconsistent, even in the world's most-connected places. Today, you might be able to access the cloud from home or even from the office, but as soon as you walk out that door, all bets are off.
The problems with the mobile Internet were never more apparent to me than during the past couple of weeks. I just came back from Taipei - one of the world's most high-tech cities - where I was attending the Computex trade show. And despite the fact that some of the world's biggest biggest tech companies are headquartered there, getting good connectivity was a challenge.
In my hotel, I was given only an Ethernet connection with a 3-foot cord. The speed of this connection was so poor that it often froze my browser. Uploading a 3-minute video (50MB) could take as long as an hour, if the Ethernet didn't suddenly die in the middle of the upload, as it often did. The press rooms at the convention center were a bit better for downloading, but upload speeds were as slow as the ones in my hotel room.
Outside of my hotel room and the convention center press rooms, I was connectionless. Other hotels I visited had Wi-Fi, but only for their own guests and public places like the Taipei 101 skyscraper had open Wi-Fi connections, but these were run by local Internet services I didn't belong to. Some of my colleagues managed to rent 3G or buy 3G modems, but when I went to a Taiwan Mobile store, the dismissive sales person told me I had to call a special phone number for travelers and gave me a phone number written down in Chinese characters that I couldn't dial. However, even my friends who had the 3G card found it slower than the painfully-slow press room connectivity.
Lest you think the connectivity problem is limited to a far-away destination like Taiwan, LAPTOP's Dana Wollman was severely hampered by connectivity issues in San Francisco just this past Monday as she was attempting to cover the iPhone 4 launch. She had no problem with sending e-mails or chatting when using her hotel's allegedly high-speed Wi-Fi, but it took her nearly six hours to send us a 4-minute, standard def video clip. She had to leave her hotel room, go to dinner, and come back and it was still uploading.
Steve Jobs feels Dana's pain. His iPhone 4 demo on Monday was famously marred by connectivity issues. He even asked all the journalists in the room to disconnect so he could have better throughput. If one of the most powerful tech CEOs in the world can't get a good connection in the heart of San Francisco, what chance do you or I have?
We've been promised that mobile broadband connectivity is getting better and, in some ways, it is. Sprint and its partner Clearwire have already outfitted 32 U.S. cities with 4G service and more are planned by the end of the year. Verizon's next-gen LTE is on its way, and T-Mobile's HSPA+ service is an enhanced version of 3G that offers stronger speeds.
One problem is that upload speeds of two out of the three above services don't come close to matching their downloads. When testing the Sprint/Clear service and the T-Mobile service in Philly earlier this year, we saw very modest upload rates of 0.83 Mbps (Sprint OverDrive), 1.05 Mbps (Clear 4G USB modem), and 1.25 Mbps (T-Mobile webConnect Rocket) in the heart of the coverage zone. On these same connections, it took us 4:14, 2:51, and 1:35 respectively to upload a single 5MB file. Considering that 5MB is the size of many high-res photos, imagine how long it would take if you had to upload an entire day's worth to the cloud.
Another problem is that business travelers and commuters just don't know what to expect. You might go to a town that's supposed to have solid coverage, but find it unreliable as I did in April when I took T-Mobile's webConnect modem with me to Austin. The device would connect and then kick us off the network after less than a minute. We've also tested other connection cards on Sprint and Verizon's networks that drop from EV-DO Rev. A to their much slower 1xRTT networks but then fail to bounce back to 3G without restarting the connection.
Hotel internet can be a huge disappointment, too. A hotel might say it has Wi-Fi, but offer slow and inconsistent connections. We have yet to see a property that makes any promises about the speed or reliability of its Internet. We also attended a conference recently where we had to skip the free Wi-Fi provided by the show's organizers in favor of a paid T-Mobile HotSpot pass. That's sad.
Though mobile connectivity and upload speeds are the biggest issues hampering cloud users, rising costs and data limits cannot be discounted. AT&T, for example, recently changed its smart phone / iPad data plans so that its top tier, priced at $25, has a 2GB per month limit. Today, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless have 5GB data limits on their most expensive mobile broadband plans, but Verizon Wireless has said it would also be moving toward metered data as it begins to roll out LTE. Meanwhile, T-Mobile has nixed its overage charge for subscribers who blow past 5GB in favor of slowing down those users. At least Sprint offers unlimited 4G usage, which is a huge advantage for those in 4G coverage areas.
Mobile broadband coverage is getting better, but the day when you can travel with a laptop or smartbook that has almost no onboard storage and a weak CPU because it does everything in the cloud is years away, if it ever arrives. We'll probably be streaming live video of the first astronauts to land on Mars before we have strong enough connectivity to truly live in the cloud.
Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and infrastructure of LAPTOP's web site. With a reputation as the staff's biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP's custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek's Geek column here every other week or follow Avram on twitter.