Every new computer comes with one guarantee: There will be a faster, shinier, newer model in short order—and you will fawn over it. It's hard not to. Processors double in power every 18 months, and other parts turn over even more quickly. Memory gets faster. Screens pack more pixels. Hard drives grow larger. And so on. Like it or not, the product cycle is also a cycle of dependency. We don't just want the newest thing—we actually need it in order to run the latest programs. But there is a way out, and it starts with a return to computing's roots.
The first commercial computers of the 1950s were mainframe systems. In a mainframe, a central terminal—sometimes as large as a room—houses processors, memory, and storage. Individual workstations connect to that central hub to tap into shared programs and databases. Over the decades, the systems grew increasingly powerful. Mainframes at large institutions or agencies can run multiple instances of an operating system at once. The everyday user, however, has no need for anything as large and expensive as a mainframe. At home, personal computers still rule.
But in the last decade, the cloud has started to change how people use their PCs. Connectivity is now just as important as hardware, which gives users ready access to software and backup services over the Internet. There's Gaikai for videogames, Amazon Instant Video for movies and TV, and Spotify for music—just to name a few. And in 2011, Google introduced Chromebooks, the first laptops that rely almost entirely on the cloud to deliver software to users. As a result, the machines need only a bit of memory and a low-power processor.
Software improvements can push the Chromebook idea a step further by transforming the cloud into a portable personal mainframe. Neverware, a New York start-up, has developed software that can deliver complete instances of Windows to up to 100 computers over Ethernet or Wi-Fi. The system even works on machines with as little as 128 MB of RAM and 500mHz processors. More than 30 public schools have installed the central server, dubbed the Juicebox 100. And as broadband access improves, Neverware hopes to deliver the entire service through the cloud.
The mainframe model could expand beyond PCs. Intel Labs's Clone Cloud project, for example, could do for old smartphones what Neverware does for old computers. When a phone's performance starts to lag, users would load a clone of their system to Intel's server and assign it tasks that the processor can no longer handle (say, graphics rendering). The service would deliver data over a cellular or Wi-Fi connection. And it won't stop there; wherever there's a screen—be it a tablet or television—and Internet access, there could also be a functioning computer. Every videogame, every website, every piece of software will work everywhere. And hardware will never be out-of-date again.
This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Popular Science.