Cloud Computing?

[Infragistics] Jess Chadwick / Wednesday, January 2, 2008

This term has been floating around the internet for some time now, but a lot of people seem confused about what it means. Basically Cloud computing is simply  the idea that the main functionality of an application is stored on a central server and accessed as needed by users, normally through a web browser using HTML AJAX etc. Its sort of like a 3270 terminal connected to a mainframe compter, except that its non-proprietary, and allows a much more  sophisticated experience, with multimedia, colors and so on.

When the PC began to emerge in the 80s "cloud computing" was already a decade old in the Unix world. PCs, which were originally simply too weak to participate in networking in any meaningful way, ran in isolation, forcing the user to rely on applications stored, first on floppy disks and later on their personal hard drives. Of course the main problem with hard disk storage is that hard drives fail, and while various backup/recovery schemes are available, for the average home user, data loss through hard disk failure (or corruption via viruses) is still a major problem.

In the past year, Google has attempted to address this problem by offering various commonly used applications (spreadsheets, personal calendars, presentations etc) for free from its web site. Since Google's profits are tied  to how much it can charge for advertising, and that in turn is tied to how many people visit its site every day, it makes perfect sense for Google to develop and give away these applications. Two nice side benefits of this are:

  • Google takes on the responsibility of keeping the data backed up
  • Your "stuff" is readily sharable across the internet with anyone you care to share with

Compared to professional office applications, the Google suite is very simple but as Josh Bloch, chief Java Architect at Google,  points out In this video interview, 90% of Microsoft Office users use only 5% of the office suite's abilities. Assuming that Google has already provided 5% of the functionality of its for-sale competition, they should be able to keep most of us happy. My wife and I already use Google to share personal calendars and a spreadsheet-based track of our day-to-day expenses.

Some have argued that trusting your sensitive personal (or business data) to a third party like Google is insanity, but to me that's like keeping all your money under your mattress because you don't trust the bank. Consider the total amount of time you spend on your computer during any given week, and then consider how much of that time is spent on the internet. To rephrase this, ask yourself how much time you'd spend on your computer if it had no internet access. If you're like most of the people I know, the answer is "A whole lot less." If you shop online, or if you use social networking sites like FaceBook, you've already "told the internet" quite a bit about yourself. Not that any of it is publicly available, but you're trusting the controllers of those servers to protect your information, just as you trust the bank to protect your money.

All of which creates some interesting challenges for anyone marketing a for-sale office suite. For Microsoft in particular, loss of market share in the Office Suite line could be problematic. As they revealed  a few years ago, they make healthy profits on Office, as well as on their operating systems, but everywhere else, they're losing money.