A recent report that Microsoft is preparing a new operating system that would move applications and data from our desktops to the Internet quickly drew the ire of many PC World readers. The idea of relinquishing control of one's apps and data to a server farm owned by a large company like Microsoft or Google--a concept called "cloud computing"--seems to have hit a nerve.
To understand this reaction, you have to look back to the late seventies and early eighties, to the dawn of the microcomputer, or "personal computer." It was the beginning of a huge shift away from the old mainframe/dumb-terminal epoch, in which all data was managed and doled out to the lowly terminals by a central monolith on a "need-to-know" basis. The personal computer era moved computing power, data, and applications from that central mainframe onto our desktops. It was the democratization of data, and it put us, the users, in control. PC World was founded on that concept.
And now it seems we're talking about a new operating system--Midori--that would push us back toward the centralized server idea again. Only this time, our data would be hosted not on giant mainframes, but on huge server farms, such as one Google is building on a 30-acre plot near the Dalles, Oregon. These data centers will serve up our apps, and host and protect our data. Later on, they'll even provide the computing power we need.
So this cloud computing idea is far more than a technical shift; it is also a major cultural shift in tech. It's one that will take some getting used to, if it happens at all.
Our readers' comments on our Midori stories provide a clear snapshot of consumer anxieties about cloud computing. Take this (rather sarcastic) one from PC World forum poster raife1:
"...I can't wait until my system is nothing more than a Microsoft Services delivery-device. I cannot wait to hand over complete control of my property and livelihood... and literally be at the mercy of every communications company, ISP, backbone provider, software provider, or government agency..."
The loss of control feared by raife1 is perhaps the main objection to cloud computing. But there are others, which we paraphrase below--and provide answers that cloud computing proponents might give in response.
1. Server outages could severely impact a user's experience.
The perfect example here is Twitter's all-too-common Fail Whale. Of course, the quality and reliability of the service is totally dependent on the quality of the provider. Twitter is not considered a "critical" application, so the data supported by that service isn't backed up by the huge, redundant server farms you'll find at eBay and Amazon.
One of the main tenets of cloud computing is that your data is hosted on at least two servers, so that if one fails, the second takes over; then yet another server is deployed to provide backup for the new primary server. I would argue that in the life span of applications delivered from host servers (the cloud), fewer server outages have occurred and less data has been lost than in the other paradigm, where individuals or companies host, secure, and back up their own data on their own servers.
2. Users would need a fast, always-on Web connection to access and work with apps and data.
This sounds like a legitimate concern, but you have to look at it in context. One of the main reasons cloud computing for consumers is being taken seriously today is that broadband connections--wired and wireless--are becoming faster and far more ubiquitous. So, yes, we do not live in an always-connected world today, but we are rapidly headed in that direction. And for those times when you can't connect, new tech like Google Gears will provide a way for us to keep working with online apps when we're not connected to the cloud.
Midori aside, Microsoft is currently taking a slightly different approach to the "offline problem''--offering a sort of hybrid where much of the service is delivered via the cloud, but where users also employ self-contained, desktop-based programs (such as Word or Excel) for working while offline. Then when the connection to the cloud is restored, users can sync up to servers, share their files, and collaborate with other users.
3. Not "owning" your own data is risky: A security breach could open up your personal info and files if they're hosted elsewhere.
To deny that such security breaches are impossible would be foolish. They happen, and will happen in the future, just as breaches of financial institutions' data systems happen and will continue to happen. But again, for the amount of data that we, as consumers, have already entrusted to the cloud, the losses in real dollars have been small. Where the consumer is concerned, the argument could be made that a large hosting facility like Google can do a far better job of backing up your data than you can. (By the way, when did you last back up the data on your home PC?)
Some very legitimate reasons exist for moving toward cloud computing. Applications can be built and delivered to millions of users far faster. Applications need no longer run on the desktop, where they have a tendency to interfere with other apps or system hardware. When the processing power itself is hosted in the cloud, PCs will have to do far less, and, conceivably, will cost far less. They would be a lot simpler too, so they wouldn't break down or need to be upgraded as much.
Cloud Computing, Front and Center
Clearly, the news that Microsoft is embracing the cloud, or at the very least having a good, close look at it--as well as the recent boom in Web-based applications like Gmail--has suddenly brought the cloud computing concept front and center in consumer technology. Until recently, the cloud computing idea, otherwise known as Software as a Service (SaaS), has mainly been the province of the business world. Businesses have been using hosted services for years, whether those services are hosted internally on a large corporate network, or externally on large servers operated by a third party (think Salesforce.com).
Daryl Plummer, who is Gartner's chief of research for advanced IT, says that a shift to Web-based applications is an evolutionary--and a necessary--step for Microsoft.
"Microsoft is in more danger today than they have ever been because their basic models for delivering value through software are being challenged," wrote Plummer in an e-mail interview with PC World. "Midori makes sense as a research project today and may make imminent sense as an offering tomorrow once we know what it really is."
"But one thing is for sure, it will be challenged on all fronts. Some will say it is not as good as Windows. Some will say the OS is no longer important. Some will say the cloud is too risky. I say change happens, and this would be supportive of a continued evolution to a service-oriented world."
I suspect that the cloud computing concept will move into the consumer computing world very slowly, one application at a time--just as it did, and continues to do, in business IT. The idea that Microsoft's next OS will suddenly be "in the cloud"  and that it is "giving up on Windows" seems a little far-fetched. More likely, Microsoft will slowly begin building in hybrid hosted/desktop services and apps into its OS in a way that is transparent to consumers, and at a rate that won't send old-school home PC enthusiasts into full-on revolt.
We'd like to know what you think about Microsoft's announcement, as well as the recent spike in online apps. Do you feel uneasy about having your data served and stored elsewhere? Would you welcome such a drastic shift from desktop applications to online-only apps? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments section below.