Even as it poked fun at Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) during its annual I/O developer conference in San Francisco yesterday, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) may have unwittingly helped Mr. Softy.

Death knell for netbooks?
CEO Eric Schmidt kicked off the proceedings by invoking the spirit of his former boss -- Sun Microsystems' (NASDAQ:JAVA) co-founder Scott McNealy -- in declaring an age of opportunity for browser applications. "The browser is the computer," a headline at CNET's News.com blared.

Can you imagine if he's right? Buh-bye, netbook. Hello, PC.

Why? Cloud computing is exceedingly complex, like a giant machine with millions of microscopic moving parts. Some of those parts exist on the machine you're using right now. Memory, CPU horsepower, Internet bandwidth -- the degree to which your system can deploy and consume these and other system resources plays a huge role in how effective you, the user, will be in accessing services and software in the cloud.

Schmidt referred specifically to HTML 5, but that's really just a code phrase for "scripts" in general. Scripts are lines of code that are designed to execute some function in a computing system or network. Cloud computing environments depend on scripts to "call" a remote server or database and retrieve code that adds to your experience -- by playing a video, for example.

Nyet, netbook, nyet
Do today's netbooks from have the horsepower to run multiple simultaneous scripts inside a full-featured browser, in a way that replicates the PC experience? I doubt it. Scripts consume CPU cycles. Some of them consume boatloads of CPU cycles.

Try using a Twitter client, which uses Adobe's (NASDAQ:ADBE) AIR platform for accessing the cloud. My client of choice, Seesmic Desktop, occasionally threatens to consume a third of my MacBook Pro's processing horsepower. Now tell me again why anyone would want to leave cloud computing to the netbooks?

Hello? Is anyone there?
Interestingly -- and not coincidentally, in my view -- demand for netbooks has softened, even as cloud computing ascends to the levels of which Schmidt spoke. Sales of Intel's (NASDAQ:INTC) low-power Atom processor fell through the floor in the most recent quarter, allowing rival Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE:AMD) to pick up market share.

PC shipments, meanwhile, are expected to see flat to slightly negative growth in the second quarter. Not so good, right? Sure, but better than the backsliding we're seeing in netbooks. Only time will reveal whether the sudden slackening of netbook demand is a hiccup or a trend, but I sense we've entered a Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor era of computing, in which we crave more power because we want to do more with the cloud.

Raining on the cloud computing = netbook nirvana myth
I have no doubt that Schmidt is right. Cloud computing is inevitable, but not because it's easier to implement or costs less. Browser-based software is more intelligent because it's more connected. Only on the Web can you view a map, get directions, and confirm your movie tickets, all in the same screen.

So let's please drop this idea that the Web is some grand egalitarian utopia where digital 98-pound weaklings don't get sand kicked in their faces. They do, okay?

If anything, the shift to cloud computing is ushering in an era of PC muscle machines unlike any we've seen before. Certainly, that's good news for higher-end computer makers such as HP and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL).

But it's good news for Microsoft, too.

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