Silver Cloud / Dark Lining?

At the risk of channeling the late Andy Rooney, I have a bone to pick with cloud computing and its adherents. Like all business trends, The Cloud (capitalization required) has achieved meaningless buzzword status. It has also attracted its share of pretenders, predators, and puzzled participants.

Lets be clear from the start: cloud computing is not new. It used to be called client-server computing, with dumb terminals tethered to big mainframes. The limitations of that world led us to rely on increasingly powerful and more affordable standalone computers, using the network for communications and data transfer, but relying on our own devices and Moores law to crunch increasing amounts of data.

The Internet, itself a product of the client-server world, is changing all that. Web-based server applications are on the rise, while personal computers, phones and tablets are the not-so-dumb terminals. Cloud disciples hail this sometimes justifiably as a huge benefit for consumers and businesses alike.

Unfortunately, hype is outracing reality. Here’s an example…

Like many, Ive begun the switch from local to Web-based information. In my case, the catalyst was music, specifically the Apple iPod/iTunes combo. I was coaxed into digitizing my CD and LP collections, buying tracks and albums online and, most recently, backing up the whole thing in iCloud. Despite my misgivings,* I dutifully installed the latest versions of Apple software and relinquished more and more of my data to an Apple-managed server somewhere on the planet. The same is happening, slowly, with my e-book collection, with my data residing on servers owned by Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, DropBox, and other companies.

There are benefits. I’m immune from losing my music or e-books if a device fails catastrophically. I can access stuff remotely on many different devices, without the need for stacks of CDs or USB drives assuming I never lose my password. So long as Apple, Amazon, et al, don’t mess up, I’m in pretty good shape, data-wise.

The downside is the truly tenuous nature of the tether between me and my data. Last week, for reasons yet unknown, iTunes 11 and QuickTime apparently had a quarrel, making it impossible for me to manage my music collection. Various devices could still play their locally-stored songs, but my collection was essentially frozen, and all but inaccessible. Emails to Apple were unanswered; I was on my own. (I stumbled on a solution of sorts namely removing QuickTime.)

For most consumers, cloud computing only works if a delicate chain of software and systems work flawlessly together. Even if all the links were owned and controlled by a single provider, they don’t always perform as expected. Software is, by nature, prone to unexpected failures. Large software companies have a vested interest in their own success, and in defeating their competitors. To make cloud-based content as stress-free traditional media would require cooperation that may be at odds with the bottom line.

I am not by any means advocating a return to standalone PCs and stacks of ZIP disks or CDs. I’m just saying we should look very hard at the practical realities of cloud-based content before we lightly abandon the reliability and lack of stress to be found in other media like print.

–John Parsons

* Unlike physical recordings or print books, cloud-based content operates under very different economic and legal rules. As long as I don’t make additional copies, I can re-sell or give away my physical albums or books, or include them in a legal will. This is next to impossible with digital music and e-books.