Monday, June 6, 2011

Clouds of Glory

The following post first appeared on July 20, 2009 on the “Old” Lamarotte. I thought I’d republish it here now that Apple has just announced its iCloud. The facts haven’t changed.

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“The Cloud” or “cloud computing” is now starting to show up in newspaper features, suggesting that a ramp-up to commercial initiatives is under way. The assumption is that this idea is something new, better yet, “a new paradigm”; that phrase has what we once called panache. In a sentence: all of our data and software reside on the Internet rather than on our hard drive. The supposed benefit is that if the computer fails or the laptop is stolen, nothing is lost. Another much-touted feature of cloud computing is that many individuals can use the same data simultaneously, which might be useful in a corporate setting—or so it’s claimed. How many people does it take to write a single letter? or a report? It’s best if the answer is one. The quality drops geometrically as authors are multiplied. But never mind. We are now deep, deep into group grope, group talk, group think, group fun, group everything…

The Cloud reminds me of the Mainframe Days. Let’s pinpoint it and say 1960 or thereabouts. The hardware platform was the massive mainframe; it held all the data; it also provided all of the CPU cycles. We reached the computer by means of terminals. Unlike PCs terminals had no chip; they were dumb input and output devices, hence the phrase “dumb terminal.” They sent keystrokes and displayed symbols on a screen (if you were so lucky); many had to reach over and look at scrolling paper on which the mainframe gave its oracular responses. The big draw-back of the mainframe was slow speed—when the number of users shot up. At least dozens and usually many more people working at the same time shared a single or a cluster of CPUs, and at times the mainframe was slow to distraction. Distant mainframes also predate The Cloud. To use a computer far away by means of terminals and dedicated phone lines was known as time-shared computing. Also very slow. The speed of data transfer has since greatly increased. If the terminal is replaced by a good computer, the server no longer needs to supply all of the CPU cycles. They are provided by the user’s machine.

What’s so hot about this idea? Group work is one answer—but networks already provide all the group-stuff we really need. Safety is the other, but that issue is really rather overrated. Those who really need to save their data know that. For that reason they use redundant means of backup. They back up computers and prepare multiple additional archival CDs on which the information is held—the copies often transported to different locations so that a fire or flood at the place of work cannot destroy the symbolic wealth. Are we justified in trusting managers of The Cloud more than our own systems? Are those distant managers beyond the reach of misfortune, fires, or terrorist attacks? I apologize for being cynical, but it seems to me that safety is just a red herring.

What’s really hot about The Cloud is that it offers someone else—not us, the users—a new way of making money out of data-storage and software by levying a continuous recurring charge on the hapless user. The service is by subscription. This means that we, as users, pay and keep on paying. Use The Cloud and turn into a Cash Cow. Back in the good old Mainframe Days, companies like IBM charged even for the use of their Operating Systems the same way—and levied fees for using other software on top of that. It was a monthly cost to the customer. Operating systems and software that you could buy once-and-for-all crimped that business model in major ways, but good ideas, like milking the consumer continuously, have a way of returning again. And here they are, coming to us now in a cloud of glory.

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