Trading and investing in the cloud
This is another example of the march of cloud computing, and in this article I'll argue that soon -- if not already -- all you will need to run your portfolio is a web browser. No PC will be required at all.
Most stockbrokers and probably all spread betting companies have a web interface through which you can deal in stocks (and other financial instruments) using an up-to-date version of any of the popular web browsers including Internet Explorer, Google Chrome (my favourite), Firefox, Opera, or (on the Apple) Safari. Your web browser could be running on a Windows PC, an Apple Mac, or even one of those web-only Google Chromebooks or rumoured Chromeboxes.
It's possible to drive broker web sites from any of those devices, I've tried it, but it's not always easy. Web browsers are not all created equal, and some of them can render the web sites a little differently from what was intended. Some web sites -- particular the spread betting ones -- require your web browser to run the Adobe Flash plug-in, which rules out iPads and iPhones but not necessarily Android tablets and phones. More about this below.
However you access your broker's web site, it doesn't have to be via your own device. Since no software is installed these days, and no data need be stored locally, you can log in and trade from someone else's computer or even from an Internet cafe... providing you remember to log out properly and not save any passwords.
More realistically, you can get up-and-running again immediately if you drop your device and have to buy a new one. This is one of the key drivers behind Google 's cloud computing Chromebook initiative.
The Android alternative
In an emergency I've managed to run stockbroker and spread betting web sites on my top-of-the-range Android mobile phone; even the web sites that are Flash-based. The "small screen" experience is not perfect, but it's just about possible. I've done the same on an Android tablet, but when it comes to tablets and phones you usually get a better experience when you run the dedicated app. Spread betting companies including IG Index, Capital Spreads and City Index have them, but unfortunately none of the stockbrokers I am familiar with.
What about your data and documents?
So much for accessing your brokerage account(s) via the web, but what about your data? I bet you keep records of your past successes and failures, perhaps in a spreadsheet, along with details of the stocks you are researching. But I've shown before how you can "webify" your spreadsheets and other documents using Google Docs or equivalent offerings from the other providers so that you can access them from any device anytime and from anywhere.
I know you have questions about security and privacy, but we can trust the big boys -- can't we?
What about market research?
I bet most if not all of your market research is already done via the web browser using web sites like Yahoo! Finance, Google Finance, and (of course) The Motley Fool. Your stockbroker's own web site should also provide a wealth of information in the form of company news, fundamentals, heat maps and stock screeners.
When it comes to managing your watch lists of prospective purchases, if your own stockbroker doesn't provide an online tool for this, and most do, then you an always take my suggestion of using a Google Finance Portfolio.
I'm now a cloud convert, I think
I'm now pretty much a cloud convert. I can research and trade my chosen stocks and manage my supporting documentation from any device, anytime and anywhere. I'm no longer bounded by time, location or technology, and I like the freedom that I've gained from becoming a cloud convert. I know the risks of trusting everything to the web, but I hope I'm being Foolish rather than foolish.
On the other hand, with laptop PCs being so cheap these days, and still providing a better web experience than your smartphone, tablet or web-only device -- plus the ability to run conventional Windows software locally as a bonus -- maybe there's life in the old (or new) PC yet.