Thursday, September 23, 2010

Life in the Cloud

There is no Cloud, only a silver lining ...

Long ago someone predicted that when computers acheived true commodity status we would no longer speak of "using a computer" any more than we speak of "using an electric motor" while vacuuming the floor.

This is nearly true now, as we use our cell phones, televisions, microwave ovens, and even cars, oblivious to the fact that they all contain microprocessors running operating systems and software. Instead we just call, watch, cook, and drive -- all of these activities enhanced or made possible by the ubiquitous chips within.

A similar development is about to happen to "The Cloud," that overused and constantly hyped buzzword that could easily be dismissed as just the latest in a long series of so-called paradigm shifts or "revolutions" flogged to the public consciousness. Nevertheless, The Cloud is about to achieve commodity status, and the less you hear about it the more certain it is that you'll be using it and relying upon it.

Here are a few cases in point:


CD's may have been the death of LP records, but it took MP3's and the Internet to transform the music industry and its distribution system. The physical package has been replaced by a digital format, no different from anything else that can be turned into packets and sent round the world. But people still buy and collect music. Why? What does it mean to "own" a copy of something so insubstantial?

What we're really buying is a license to listen to it any number of times. But to protect that right we have to carefully store our copies and back them up to protect against loss, because the only way to legally acquire another copy is to buy it again.

But this model is based on the ownership of physical artifacts, and it has nothing to do with listening. How many times can I listen to a favorite song? Dozens, certainly. Hundreds, probably. But thousands? Would have to be a really good tune! And in my own case, with the equivalent of hundreds of CD's and many thousands of tracks (I refuse to call them songs, because most of them aren't), it would take me months of listening 24 hours a day just to hear everything I have just once.

Wouldn't it make more sense to have a license to listen to anything that has ever been recorded, whatever I might choose at the moment? If the price was low enough -- and there's no reason for it to be expensive -- I would happily pay a monthly fee, or even by the hour, for the priviledge. This way I wouldn't have to acquire my own copies and worry about their preservation. And I wouldn't have to limit myself to a single set of performances of the Beethoven Symphonies, when others might be equally interesting. This service should also keep track of my favorite composers and performers so I could easily find them again, and find new things for me as they became available.

Remember what Jean Luc Picard could do on the Starship Enterprise? He could request some music ... make it guitar music ... no, not Spanish, classical ... Bach, perhaps ... by Julian Bream ... something slower ... and whatever his whim, the ubiquitous ship's computer would provide. There are nascent services like Rhapsody and Last.fm that are attempting something like this with pop music. It has a long way to go, but don't be surprised if it happens, and seemingly overnight.


You might think the exact same thing was going to happen to movies -- and certainly the MPAA is afraid that's true. But films are fundamentally different from music in two ways. First, they're much bigger, so storing your own copies presents more of a challenge. But second, and more importantly, there is a much more limited number of times they will be watched. Sure, you might sit through another rerun of Casablanca or Citizen Kane no matter how many times you've seen them before. But let's face it, most films wear thin even the second time around, and most of us will quickly move on from been-there-done-that to something new, even if it's not as good.

The result is that there is more of an impetus to changing the distribution model for movies than there is for music -- meaning that music stores might outlast video rental stores. Within the year there will be multiple choices for internet-based movies and TV from big names like Google and Apple as well as traditional cable and communications companies.

Netflix is pushing to eliminate mailing DVD's back and forth to you. They would rather get you to grab what you want online, even if they have to give much of it away for nothing. The whole idea of seeing what's on the shelf at Blockbuster already seems so quaint that the firm has filed for bankruptcy protection -- despite its own efforts to move online, the firm is bogged down by the weight of its bricks-and-mortar stores.

On the consumer side, permanent storage of the media has been replaced by streaming, which means you don't have to spend hours downloading a DVD but instead can watch it while the data pours in. Temporary storage is available in the form of Tivo-style recorders that let you pause or backup or even play over what you're watching, while recognizing (and incidentally enforcing) the idea that you won't want to see it more than a few times.

The shift to streaming is happening so fast that for many people the upgrade from DVD to Blu-Ray will be skipped over -- the first time a physical format has been trumped by a purely digital one before it achieved wide adoption. Even the idea of consulting a schedule to find out when your favorite show is "on" will soon be a thing of the past. TV by appointment is over.

Once we get used to this with visual content, we'll look again at our music collections and wonder why not to do the same thing with them.


Which brings us back to computers, where we started out. If you live with one or more of these beasts, and most of us do, you have undoubtedly had your share of upgrades, crashes, lost files, and maddening tech support phone calls. Of these, the most insidious is that it is so easy to lose everything we thought we had carefully saved. All those photo albums ... emails ... financial information ... passwords to websites ... music collections (see above) ... cute videos of the kids at Christmas ... all up in smoke, either literally or figuratively, due to the failure of some cheap part on a motherboard, a dead hard drive, a dreaded virus attack, or a catastrophic software failure.

For years I've protected myself against these disasters (and many of us don't even try) by making periodic backup copies to some form of removable disk, or uploading them to a secure place on a server that I had access to.

But recently I began keeping some of my most useful files on Dropbox,* a service that gives you 2 gigabytes of free storage space online, with more available for a low cost. Google offers such space, too, through their Google Docs service -- and for an even lower price. But what makes Dropbox worthwhile is that it gives you a special folder that will automatically replicate everything you put there into your folder on their website. Not only that, but it will also replicate your files onto any other computers that you set up to use with the service. It even keeps the copies in sync and allows recovery of deleted files.

The convenience is eye-opening. What a pleasure to know the files I saved at home are available automatically at my office the next time I log in. The more I've used it, the less reason I see not to put ALL my files there -- at least the ones that don't take up too much space. It would be expensive to back up my vast music library, but not a problem at all to keep all my word documents, spreadsheets, and things I need for working with websites. Once you get used to the idea, you wonder why computers shouldn't just work this way, period.

The answer is, they soon will. Computers (if they're still called that), just like phones and tablets, will become nothing more than platforms to access software, data, and services that will be housed exclusively online. Any local copies you save will be just backups for the real thing. Just as with movies and music, what matters is access, not ownership or physical location.

Right now to save all my files with Dropbox might cost me from $8 to $30 per month (for 50 or 100 gigabytes). That's not cheap, but comparable to what I pay for Internet access. Google will sell you a full terabyte for $20 a month, showing that prices can go much lower. Now imagine that the service is bundled with your Internet package by your provider, just as you get a "free" email account along with it. And naturally your provider will take care of those tedious backups for you. Life is good!

The cloud is upon us, and as soon as it disappears you'll know we're living in it.

*[Like to try Dropbox and get some free extra storage space? Contact me for an invitation.]

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