Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, July 10, 2009

living in the clouds

The Newshour with Jim Lehrer last night did a story on cloud computing that was rather comical at times — “You mean other people can see that spreadsheet?” — but laid out the basic issues well enough. However, the show was extremely Google-centric: its primary example of “living in the cloud” was a woman who keeps track of her family’s life via Google apps — a woman who just happens to be a Google employee who (apparently) works on Google docs. And a lot of the segment was built around an interview with Eric Schmidt, who encourages us all to “trust the professionals” to back up our data and keep it safe.

But which professionals? See, there are many clouds out there, and it’s not clear that they’re all equally safe, equally reliable, equally honest. Now, you may not plan to out anything in the cloud if you can help it — but if you do, then who do you trust? Google has a ton of my information because I use Gmail; but, though I have fooled around with Google Calendar and other Google services, I do a good deal of my life-organizing with Backpack. So who is more trustworthy, Google — one of the most powerful corporations in the world, who gives me their services for free but mines my account for data — or 37signals, a small company who charges me a fee for their services but promises not to use or share my data?

Many factors need to be considered when answering this question. There’s the issue of diversification: Would I do well to prevent one company from controlling all my data? And I haven't even mentioned the difficulties that can arise when you’re trying to export your data or otherwise pry it from the cloud’s clutches. But though I’ve thought about these matters a lot, I don't think I understand them very well. This is all too new.

7 comments:

  • "Trust the professionals"? Good grief. What planet is he on?

    A professional is someone trained to have a certain viewpoint, paid to keep that viewpoint, and motivated to pay his mortgage, car payment, and child's college tuition.

  • I too use gmail and google reader, but I simply can't bring myself to use Chrome, Calendar, docs, or any of Google's other services. It's enough that Google has all my communications and knows what I read. The idea of them being able to have all my documents, my appointments and personal schedule, my browsing history, etc. is immensely disturbing.

  • I am not convinced that "cloud computing" is a step forward. In many ways, it is a return to the thin-client/mainframe model from which personal computers were originally designed to liberate us.

    To be sure, it would be convenient to sit down at any computer in the world and do one's work. But is such convenience worth the risk of trusting an advertising company (Google) with one's private data? And is such convenience worth returning to an early-90s level of functionality (i.e., Google docs)?

    Every time someone says "the web is the platform," I want to ask, "What exactly do web apps offer that I cannot currently accomplish with a desktop OS and an email account?"

    Google understandably wants people to spend a lot of time online -- preferably signed into their Google accounts so that their web activity can be tracked. Such an aim is not inherently evil. But I imagine most people will continue to use the web for sharing, while keeping their individual work (writing, research, financial tracking, desktop publishing) safely at home.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Dave, on "the thin-client/mainframe model," John Gruber at Daring Fireball has some interesting thoughts along those lines this morning (this software isn't allowing me to add the link).

    To the question ""What exactly do web apps offer that I cannot currently accomplish with a desktop OS and an email account?", I think Google would answer: automatic backups, access from any computer with an internet connection, seamless server-side upgrades, and (eventually) one-step searching of *everything.* Not saying I buy it, but that's what they're selling.

  • I think the question is more related to ethics and values than technology, and I don't think professionals have an advantage over lay people in that area. Maybe my perception of the question is off.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Julana, I think what Google is saying is "we have the technology and the skills, and you'll just have to trust us about the ethics."

  • I guess I understood them to say that, but found that understanding to imply an amazing level of confidence in their staff and naivete in their audience.

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