So Cory Doctorow, who is usually a pretty smart guy, weighed in on cloud computing today. I’m interested in what he has to say, so I absolutely went and checked out his opinion. I was surprised to say the least.
What’s jarring is that his thesis — that cloud computing is so exciting because people think they can make money off it — is pretty fair. I would go so far as to suggest that it’s not even particularly controversial, outside of a few techno-idealists. It’s just that the reasoning and examples that follow are far less about that point and far more about…honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe the man keeping us down or something.
For my two bits, cloud computing is far from any kind of new idea (even if the terminology is newly hip). There has always been a conflict between the idea of doing everything locally with one mighty computer and doing things remotely where there are advantages like redundancy, accessibility and cost. The idea of the “thin client” — a cheap computer that plugged into a more powerful computer to do everything — was a re-emergence of the classic dumb terminal, and it was the next big thing for a while, until computers got cheap enough that it seemed wasteful.
Today, computers have gotten cheaper still, to the point where the average user may well have access to several computers. This is important because it means that for normal human activities, like writing or playing music or playing games, it matters a lot what is on which computer. There are solutions for this — home networks, USB drives and such — but they all have their own limitations. For a user, being able to get to their content from any machine without hassles is the ultimate convenience. There are some ubiquitous examples of this, like gmail and flickr, but it’s possible dropbox is the best better example. I have a free 2 gig account with them, and anything I’m writing gets saved to the local dropbox directory, and gets synced to all the other machines I’ve signed up. If I’m on someone else’s machine, I can access my stuff via the web.
None of this is particularly hardcore. I don’t talk about Amazon or Rackspace and the cloud services they offer here, I’m just talking about things that my mom might use. And that, I think, might be where my opinion ends up differing from Doctorow. He is right about the sheer amount of computer power that can be cheaply bought by the average user, but even he acknowledges that it’s simply more computer than most people need. This simple truth has sold a lot of netbooks and a lot of cheap Dells, and it’s ultimately the flaw in any argument that a cloud service is not as fast or powerful as your computer. Users (excepting a very nerdy segment) don’t measure computing in absolute terms — they need enough power to perform certain tasks, and most of what’s past that point is likely to be lost on them. If remote computing can clear that threshold (and evidence says it can) then it can do the job.
Now, he’s right to be wary of predatory pricing schemas and bad business practices, but I don’t think that’s news, and if nothing else the robustness of the cloud market seems to have successfully driven the entry price to “free” for the average user. And that’s the rub — I think Doctorow’s sense of the average user is a bit more rarefied than mine. If he thinks Amazon’s service is for the average guy, then heck, maybe he’s right. We may already all be too smart to need anything but sftp, our personal linux box and a few scripts. I certainly know people for whom that is true, but their time tends to be worth enough to merit just paying for the service.
But I apparently know many fewer of them than Mister Doctorow.