Cloud computing is a hot topic in the computer world, but if you’re not a tech geek you may be wondering about the term. In the early days of networking, when system administrators drew diagrams of their local networks they’d have little symbols for their computers, printers, hubs, wiring, but when it came to picturing the connection to the outer world, they’d draw a cloud. Eventually, they’d draw a cloud and write Internet over it.
The cloud was just a mysterious place at the edge of their map. Back in the old days, they’d describe two networks, the LAN (local area network) and the WAN (wide area network), but the WAN just meant all the branch offices. The Internet tied all the LANs and WANs into one big world wide network. Any computer equipment you don’t manage is part of the cloud.
The shift to cloud computing means trusting other people with your data, programs, and even CPU processing. Picture this. The old way was taking photos, processing them with Picasa, and keeping your snaps on your laptop. The new way is taking photos, uploading them to Picnik, crop and process them in your browser, and then creating a Show to send your friends to view online. Nothing really happens on your computer. You use your computer to manipulate photos at a distance. It doesn’t even matter what kind of computer you have, Mac, PC or Linux.
Now, there are pros and cons to cloud computing. If your computer is stolen, you don’t lose your photos. But if Picnik goes out of business, you do. But Picnik was just bought by Google, so hint, hint, see the direction of things? Google already has Picasa, so why would they want Picnik?
Well, a little story might explain that. In the fabled old days of writing computer programs, a programmer would develop and test a program, and then take it to each computer in the building and install it, and then wait for the users to find more bugs. If your business had PCs and Macs, you’d have to write two versions of the program. If the OSes were upgraded, you’d sometimes have to rewrite your programs. It was a pain. If the boss wanted a new feature, you’d rewrite the program, and then walk around and reinstall the program on all the machines again. A bigger pain. Then came web based programs. You write one program that runs on a web server that worked with PCs, Macs, and Linux machines. No more going around installing on individual computers.
Right now when Google updates Picasa everyone has to download and install the upgrade. If Google switches everyone to Picnik, all that goes away. They no longer have to worry about supporting millions of users, or maintaining PC and Mac versions of their programs. But it does mean they need to offer users a lot more disk space to upload their photos to. Instead of keeping your photos just on your computer, you can also put them on Google’s computers, in the cloud. If you are trusting, you could even delete the photos off your camera and computer. In other words, you are letting Google be your hard drive, at least for photos. And if you use Google Docs, you are letting them be your hard drive for word processing and spreadsheet documents.
Cloud computing has tremendous ramifications. Can you trust the cloud? Actually, can you trust the companies that maintain a cloud presence? Many people aren’t trusting by nature. I assume they might use the cloud, but keep copies of everything they own on their PC and backup drives. But what if there were more security features to the cloud? What if you could back up your stuff on Google to SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage? Or what if something like databanks emerged, that offered the same security for your data as they do for your money? What if there were governmental regulations and safeguards to data stored in the cloud?
Let me assure you of something, you will want the cloud to work and be safe because it will make your computing life infinitely easier. It would mean the end of viruses, and new computers that run slower and slower, and computers that start acting weird in ways you can’t understand. Computers could become solid-state devices with no moving parts, and the OS could be burned in ROM, so they can’t be changed, or infected, and your machine could become instant on, like a TV. And the OS wars will be over too, no more I’m a Mac, I’m a PC commercials, even though they were cute.
This is explained in “The real reason why Steve Jobs hates Flash” by Charlie Stross, the cutting edge science fiction writer, and over at TechCrunch in “Apple’s Secret Cloud Strategy and Why Lala is Critical” by Michael Robertson. It’s why the iPad and iPhone are more important now to Apple than the Mac. It’s why Intel is worried about its dominance of Intel Inside chips. It’s why Google is trying to take over the world with Android. It’s why Netflix can get almost any kind of device to stream videos directly to your TV. It’s why the iPad can run blazingly fast on a 1Ghz processor.
When everything is moved into the cloud, computers can become very simple. Steve Jobs knows that in the future no one will pay extra bucks to own a Mac. It’s why the iPad started out so cheap that HP and Microsoft cancelled their tablets. Computers will go through a paradigm change like when they morphed from mainframes/minis into microcomputers, that caused the personal computer revolution. For decades the network computer has been predicted, but it’s taking a while to emerge. Network computers can only succeed if everyone has fast broadband.
You are already living in the cloud if you use Netflix to stream movies. You are already living in the cloud if you do your banking online. Most people who did their taxes this year used cloud programs rather than installing TurboTax on their machine. Most people store their photos in the cloud. Soon you’ll store your music in the cloud. Eventually they will make video cameras that have WiFi and your video will be saved immediately to the cloud. If you watch Hulu, you are getting your TV from the cloud. When you put your medical records online, they will be filed in the cloud.
I use Safari Books Online, and so I read computer books from the cloud. Kindles and Nooks could just as easily display pages of books from the cloud instead of downloading whole books. I read my newspaper on the cloud. I’m starting to read magazines on the cloud.
Now I’m sure some of you are wondering why invent a new word for the Internet. Or we could simplify everything by just calling it the net. Everything will be on the net. The distinction is that your old computer and hard drive are on the net now. They are a node on the Internet. Using the term cloud implies the that node is different. It should eventually do away with hard drives, and seldom mentioned, but also do away with printers. If you combined tablet computers with cloud computing you can do away with paper.
One of my tasks at work is to monitor the helpdesk tickets for my college, so I know what kind of problems pester users every day. Cloud computing will make most of the problems I see now disappear. Sadly, it will put a lot of tech support guys out of work. If one geek guru can support a hundred users now, he or she will be able to support five hundred in the future. But this won’t happen overnight.
Most businesses will not let their workers put business documents in the cloud any time soon, but I expect most students to start saving their work to the cloud now. Why spend big bucks for Microsoft Office when you can use Google Docs or Windows Live for free? Poor OpenOffice should just fade away. All the free cloud computing services will convince home users and students to switch pretty quick. Business will install SitePoint and create their own private cloud services for awhile, but when security and privacy get better, I bet they will move to paid cloud services.
Using the cloud will cost money. We see a lot of free services now, but it will be tiered, so if you want more or better functions, you will pay. Picnik is a good example. I’m expecting iTunes 10 to incorporate Lala technology in a way that puts personally owned songs into the cloud. Whether Apple sells us the space or gives it to us is another issue. I’m thinking as long as you’re a loyal iTunes shopper, Apple might give their customers lifetime space, but we’ll see.
I’m anxious to see what Steve Jobs announces in June. Apple has leaped into the forefront of the cloud computing revolution with the iPad and iPhone. By fiercely controlling its App Store, it controls the quality of its cloud experience. That was a brilliant move on Apple’s part. I would expect further control in the future. It’s great to say you have over a 100,000 apps, but it’s another thing to say you have 10,000 A+ quality apps. I see the iPad as the model of future computers. Personal computing wild west days are over.
Right now computer users can muck up their machines by installing anything they want, or carelessly allow hackers to install dangerous programs on their machines. If all applications came from a tightly control app store, then things will be different. I expect the replacement for Windows to be an OS tied to an app store, so Microsoft can control the entire experience. I’m not sure what the Open Source crowd will think.
Right now the iPad represents a hybrid of cloud computing. It still downloads apps. A true network computer won’t. HTML 5 will go a long way towards making everything a web application. Most iPhone/iPad apps are really just hybrid web apps. This is a murky area for my crystal ball. A totally streamlined OS for a net computer will be little more than a HTML 5 browser. It should also mean the end of the app store. If you play a game, the game will run at the game server, not on your device. Your scores and saved games should be saved on the server. Anyone who is really into thinking about cloud computing will see this as a conundrum for the phasing out of dedicated computers. Games require the most local hardware, so they will be phased out last.
Other people will say that’s what the Xbox and PS3 have been doing for years, phasing out PC gaming. Will cloud computing ever have the power to compete with gaming consoles?
JWH – 5/2/10