This month’s hot topic is “the cloud”, or cloud computing. You’ve likely heard of cloud computing in passing but are unsure as to what exactly that means. You also probably use it on a daily basis and don’t even know it. As the ways we work, live, and play all become more wired (or wireless depending on your view), it’s important to understand how the eventual shift to cloud computing will affect these areas of our lives.
What is it?
Cloud computing is essentially a different way for computers to interact with data. The common method to access the internet is through the client-server model, where data is hosted via a specific web server and accessed through a browser. This worked when the Internet was more of a novelty, but now we rely on it for almost everything. If we can’t access a site we need to, are unable to view or work on something because we lack the necessary software or application, or even (and we all have) fail save a copy of a file on another computer, most the time we are plain out of luck. We’ve all experienced such annoyances, but what if we didn’t have to worry about these issues anymore? Fortunately, all these problems could be minimized or even solved through the appropriate use of cloud computing.
The basic idea behind cloud computing is relying on a system of computers and servers (the “cloud”) to host data and apps instead of individual computers. While that means little to most people, it changes the way services are provided considerably. Consider your email addresses; specifically work and personal. For work you access email via a program like Entourage, which connects to the server to download our messages. But if the server goes down or we lack access to a computer with Entourage, we’re out of luck. Compare this to a personal email service like Gmail (a cloud-based application), which can be accessed from any computer, and the difference becomes clear.
Why use it?
The most convincing reason to implement cloud computing is access in all senses of the word. Because the data lives in the cloud, not your computer, you can readily access it from any computer. Ever had work delayed because your computer crashed? This is a non-issue with cloud apps, since the data can be pulled from any computer with an internet connection. And because the software is installed outside of your computer on the cloud, compatibility becomes a non-issue; the software is updated remotely so the experience is the same regardless. Cloud applications are web based, reducing the need for powerful computers and storage space and translating into savings on computers and software.
But as with any system, there are drawbacks to using one in lieu of another. Cloud computing requires a constant internet connection. It seems overly simple but without a connection there’s no way to access cloud based applications or data, so if you’re often without a connection the cloud is not for you. Because cloud software and applications must operate well across many browsers and computers, many features require more computing power than the cloud can provide for. While a cloud based image or film editor would be wonderful, at this point desktop applications like Photoshop or Final Cut are a better alternative to the cloud.
The future of cloud computing
Large web-oriented companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce, and Google all utilize cloud computing in one way or another. Of these companies, Salesforce.com relies on the cloud for its entire business practice. Jolicloud, a french software company, is creating an iPhone-esque cloud app that will store all your applications in the cloud, making them available for you at any computer. But perhaps the most convincing reason to believe in the cloud is Google’s Chrome project; Google is so confident in cloud computing they are developing an operating system with it as the foundation.
Cloud computing will really break into the mainstream when it becomes the delivery vehicle for entertainment content. Earlier this year Apple acquired Lala, a cloud-based music streaming service, and promptly shut it down (presumably while they develop a cloud-based iTunes). Meanwhile, Netflix continues to see record growth in streaming video year after year. Supposedly Apple has put the Lala team to work not on developing a cloud for music delivery, but video since video files are exponentially larger than mp3s. Given that mobile video is is a half billion dollar market, if Apple can produce a solution for video it can scale it down for music. While we can assume both companies will take advantage of cloud computing as soon as the appropriate technology becomes available, it is only when they make it ring with consumers that we will see the value of cloud computing and be willing jump on board.
Currently there is one company, Steam, that makes popular computer games available as a subscription service to consumers. But will consoles follow suit? Revolutionary video game designer Hideo Kojima thinks so. Kojima believes “gamers should be able to take the experience with them in their living rooms, on the go, when they travel – wherever they are and whenever they want to play. It should be the same software and the same experience.” Given that many game developers have started to release versions of their games on multiple systems, including the iPhone and iPad, eventually there will be some convergence and consolidation among consoles and platforms as Kojima predicts. But it is only after consumers see the benefit of the cloud in other forms of entertainment like music and video that they will demand the same of gaming.