Stop the Cloud, I Want to Get Off!

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Remember when the "cloud" was just called the "Internet?" This absurd fascination with naming online services after suspended atmospheric condensation is kind of driving me nuts. For around 14 years, millions of people have used Hotmail, but they didn't use a "cloud email solution." When we were all ripping our CDs a decade ago and looking up track information on the CDDB, we weren't using a "cloud music information service." Look, it's just the Internet, people. We don't need a new word to say that data is stored on a central server. I can't wait for the day when "cloud" joins the dustbin of overused and meaningless technology marketing words, along with push, virtual reality, and multimedia.

I don't mean to be down on cloud online services entirely. Sure the current trend in taking Internet services and making them sound new by slapping the "cloud" label on them is annoying, but it's not just the naming getting under my skin. It's the way these services behave, or rather don't behave, when you don't have a robust connection. I think there has been such a rush to provide something the marketing folks can label a "cloud service" that there has been no thought to the inherent unreliability of the Internet at large. Need hosting for your web enterprise? Amazon has a solution for you! Of course, if Amazon's web services go down, it's your business that suffers. Want to listen to some music? Spotify and Grooveshark have everything you want...until your connection flakes out or access is removed or limited by a third party. Don't get me started on the personal information you put in the hands of the companies behind these services. It's bad enough when Sony compromises millions of accounts, but even services that don't have security problems might be sharing your information with marketers. In a rush to make sure everything is available online, companies are forgetting about the inherent security and reliability of good old-fashioned local computing.

I think it's a cultural thing. Technology companies in Silicon Valley live and work in such a persistently-connected environment that they sometimes forget about the common user. You know, the person with a restrictive bandwidth cap who can't afford over $100 a month for unlimited 4G service and limps along with overpriced 3 megabit so-called "broadband." Cloud Internet services should always be designed with a single question in the back of one's mind: "What happens if they can't connect?"

You know who does a great job with this? Zune. Apple is no doubt gearing up for its inevitable cloud Internet music service, and everyone is sure to make a huge deal about it. The rumor mill says it'll be called iCloud (way to Think Different™, Apple). Microsoft already has an amazingly good cloud Internet music service in Zune. For your subscription fee, you can stream nearly anything in the whole Zune music marketplace, as much as you want, in high quality. You don't even need to use the Zune software, you can just log into the website with any modern browser and stream away. But you can also download all the tracks you want, store them locally, and listen to them when you're not connected. It's even smart enough to mix your local library and online tracks in the Pandora-like Smart DJ feature. Of course there's DRM on the all-you-can-eat downloads (they have to make sure you lose access to them if you stop subscribing, which is fair), but Microsoft throws you a bone there, too. You can download 10 tracks a month, completely DRM-free, which you own forever. So it's a cloud online music service, but it offers as complete functionality as possible when you aren't connected.

Not to once again harp on how great Dropbox is, but it too is a perfect example of the right way to implement a cloud Internet service. Files in your Dropbox folder are uploaded to the company's servers, and accessible online, but they're also fully-functioning local files. You have access when you're offline, and the service just works out all the modification times and syncs all your computers and devices when you go back online. I have four PCs sharing a Dropbox folder, and I can work on any of my files on any of them without any online access at all, knowing that they'll all be magically updated, online and off, next time I connect.

In other words, the reason Dropbox and Zune work as could online services is because Internet connectivity is only additive. You don't lose offline capabilities just because you have additional awesome online features. Compare that to dozens of other online services (even ones I really like, such as Flickr), that essentially have no offline story at all. Over the next year, so-called cloud services will be bigger than ever. From iCloud to Windows 8, we'll see a dramatic increase in the number of everyday users using them. Increasingly, I'll make decisions about which online services I'll use by measuring what they let me do when I'm not cloud-connected.

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