At $200, my new 'MacBook Cloud' is a dream come true

Apple really should create the MacBook Cloud, but until they do, you can make it yourself for right around $200

So I'm pretty excited about today's post. Dan Nystedt says Apple doesn't get netbooks. Probably true, but I think Apple should skip to cloudbooks. Last week I set myself up with a bad, bad new $200 MacBook Cloud. Sound too good to be true?  It is indeed hard fact. More importantly, I'm going to share the secret sauce so you can get yourself one of these fabulous devices.

So what's a cloudbook? A notebook optimized for using cloud services, of course.

[ Read Dan Nystedt's post on why Apple may miss out on the biggest device trend since the smartphone because, absent Steve Jobs, other execs don't seem to grasp future product trends ]

For me, this started when a buddy showed me his Hacintosh. He had picked up a used, non-Apple laptop for about $300 and installed Mac OS X on it. If you're an Apple fan or a Darwin project participant, you're well aware of this possibility. The Gizmodo guys upped the stakes in February when they hackintoshed a Dell Mini 9 into what they called "the Ultimate OS X Netbook."

For the record, the instructions they posted absolutely rock, and it's incredibly easy to create one of these yourself. I love my Gizmodo peeps, but may I be so bold as to suggest a small improvement: Why stop with a netbook when you could have a MacBook Cloud? I didn't think it would be too hard to take this hack to the next level by taking advantage of some cloud services.

I grabbed a Dell Mini 9 off a friend and got to work. No rocket science involved. A couple of add-ons later, I had a sweet little machine that I'm happier with than any computer I've ever owned. I had a little jolt of inspiration when I saw my buddy's Mini 9 running Mac OS X. Why not finally use that silly MobileMe cloud-synchronization account I bought from Apple? Seriously, I like being able to share contacts across my machines, but outside of that the service was damn near useless. My idea was to modify the OS to send only safe files to (MobileMe's address). I travel a lot and sometimes go to some pretty sketchy places, so I figured a cloudbook that cost me $200 and is incapable of saving personal data to its local hard drive would be the ultimate travel solution.

Think about that. You're traveling with your new MacBook Cloud, which potentially cost less than your cell phone, and your machine is lost/stolen/missing/whatever. Are you worrying about the sensitive data you're working on? Nope. Your data is still safe and accessible. Are you upset about the 200 bones? Probably, but that number pales in comparison to most business notebooks and isn't even in the same ballpark with losing your secret plans for world domination. Are you worried about someone hacking your password? Not even. Just log into your account and change the password. Ta-da! You've now taken a potentially disastrous experience and eliminated all the risk for $200. You wouldn't even break a sweat if customs confiscated it on your way back into the country.

Warning: Everything I've done to create my cloudbook violates the Mac OS X EULA,  trashes your Dell warranty, and in general will probably lead to other trouble. So don't hold me, InfoWorld, Apple Computer, Dell, Gizmodo, or anyone else responsible for whatever actions you're about to take. Proceed at your own risk.

With that out of the way, the process is quite simple -- I've yet to meet anyone who's had any trouble.  My two bits are really just an add-on to the Gizmodo instructions, so I'm going to hit the high notes and point you where you need to go. That way I give credit where credit is due and don't get InfoWorld into any more trouble than necessary. Let's turn your Dell Mini 9 into a MacBook Cloud.

1. Get your hands on a Dell Mini 9. The Mini 9 I snagged sports 1GB of RAM and an 8GB solid state hard drive. Sounds weak, I know, but it's been a pleasure to use. You can upgrade to 2GB for a little extra scratch, but I've yet to feel that necessary.

2. Follow Gizmodo's instructions entitled "How To: Hackintosh a Dell Mini 9 Into the Ultimate OS X Netbook." If you're thinking it sounds hard, quit worrying. I followed these instructions plus a couple of Web tips for reducing the size of Mac OS X, and had my Hackintosh up and running in less than 30 minutes.

3. Configure your machine so that no files can be saved locally. I know, you really don't have to configure anything if you just follow the rules when using your new machine, but we all get tired, are subject to proverbial bad days, and are indoctrinated by years of personal computer usage to save to our hard drives. I work 20-hour days on a regular basis and rarely know what day of the week it is, so I decided to eliminate the possibility I might (gasp!) accidentally save a file locally.

a. First, I configured my new MacBook Cloud to log into upon startup. 

b. Then I configured any applications that allowed me to set a working directory to save by default to my iDisk (Apple's cloud storage service). 

c. Finally, I created an Automator action (a type of visual Mac script) that looks for any files on my desktop and moves them to my iDisk upon sleep or shutdown.

I'm telling you, this baby's a dream. I'm an old Unix hack, so I made some of these simple modifications using cron jobs and symbolic links, but I'm not going to bore you with those here. A, b, and c should be easy enough that almost anyone can get their idiot-proof MacBook Cloud up and running. There is one more thing that might bug some of you: As cool as it is, this system only works over a wireless connection. So here's my optional step four:

4. (Optional) If you're mad as hell, and you're not going to take only being able to save files over a wireless network anymore, you've got a couple of options. There's "easy as pie" and "Oh my god, what was I thinking?" Easy as pie: Purchase a small USB key or external storage device to keep with your machine for those times when wireless is not an option. My friend Giovanni Gallucci's been velcroing a small, thin hard drive(s) to his laptop for years. This option is cheap, efficient, and sort of detracts from my store-everything-in-the-cloud motif. But do it if you must. Now for Oh my god, what was I thinking? Get your hands on a Novatel EU850D, solder several things here, tape a few things there, and voila! You'll be independent. Jkkmobile posted a set of illustrated instructions, but I still wouldn't recommend this unless you are 1) prepared to ruin the incredibly cool machine you just configured, or 2) an electrical engineer with a Weller GT7A3, a 3/16-inch' chisel tip, 700°F of pure soldering magic, and have a serious appetite for frustration.

If you haven't held two of the above, or don't own at least one of the above, just hit the local coffeehouse and save yourself the pain.

5. Revel in your mad Hackintosh-instruction-following skills. Come on now, this is pretty simple. It's not going to change your life, but it is a $200 cloudbook that doesn't contain any personal data and offers peace of mind when I think I might have left my bag in a cab, or a hotel room, or with airport security (cause for some reason they don't like me). Dan Nystedt says Apple doesn't get netbooks, and he's right. Either way, I think Apple should skip netbooks and go directly to cloudbooks. Until it does, help yourself to MacBook Cloud!