This post in in response to Cory Doctorow’s recent column for the Guardian, “Not every cloud has a silver lining.” I think many of his points are well spoken, but I’m playing devils advocate here on a few things.
Here’s something you won’t see mentioned, though: the main attraction of the cloud to investors and entrepreneurs is the idea of making money from you, on a recurring, perpetual basis, for something you currently get for a flat rate or for free without having to give up the money or privacy that cloud companies hope to leverage into fortunes.
I don’t think anyone is surprised to know that companies want to make money, but if they can provide a good value for the money, I’m happy to pay it.
I’d hardly call the money I spend on my computer “free.” Hardware and maintenance can be a big, expensive headache, and sometimes the idea of ditching all my computers, getting a cheap netbook, and living in the cloud is mighty appealing – and I’m one to build my own computers and install linux on anything with a CPU. Sometimes convenience is worth spending extra. It might cost more to tap into cloud computing resources; it also costs more to rent instead of buying. But for many, there are advantages to renting – you can move easier, you don’t have to pay for maintenance on the property, and it’s generally a little more stress free. As with anything, it’s all about personal preference.
As for privacy- we trust a lot of entities every day with our private information. Our ISP, the government, the makers of our OS (the operating systems are networked, after all). If you really want complete privacy, you’ll have to unplug your computer from the internet and preferably use an open source OS (linux). Barring that, you’ll have to trust companies a little bit. Determining who to trust and when is a continual process, and one that won’t be solved by swearing off cloud computing.
Cory actually gets at why cloud computing can be really great later on:
The first online services charged you for every email you sent or received. The next generation kicked their asses by offering email flat-rate. Bit by bit, the competition killed the meter running on your network session, the meter that turned over every time you clicked the mouse.
Cloud computing fosters intense competition. Unlike an operating system and programs installed locally, which can take significant time and money to switch, switching between web applications is fairly painless- especially if said web applications provide ways to import and export data (which is why we should demand such features of all our applications). If you are paying month to month and feature to feature, you won’t hesitate to switch over to a competitor when they outstrip your current service in terms of cost or features. However, if you just spent $300 on Microsoft Office, you might be a bit more wary of switching to a competitor. Plus, because of this intense competition, improvements will come incrementally. Instead of waiting 3 years for Microsoft or Apple to fix that thing that’s been bugging you, there’s a good chance it’ll be rolled out next month.
I personally am not ready to trust the cloud with many functions. I don’t even use the cloud for backup storage, as Cory does, because I’ve found it’s cheaper just to buy another hard drive and keep it offsite. I believe the future of cloud computing will continue to be a hybrid of desktop and cloud applications. More and more cloud applications have ways of using the app while offline, and ways to back up data locally (including more robust APIs). As consumers, we need to concern ourselves with privacy policies and open standards, but that’s nothing new- it’s something we should concern ourselves with anyway.