Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Hey baby, get off my cloud

Sometimes the computing world comes up with a term that truly gets on my nerves, especially when it used portentously - few have succeeded as fully as 'the cloud' and 'cloud computing'.

Part of the problem I have with this is why 'the cloud' is necessary at all? We've already got the terms 'network' and 'server' that seem to work quite well. By comparison, 'the cloud' is more than a little nebulous. (Smug smile.)

However, it seems we're stuck with it. But there have been interesting signs lately of a split in the cloud. We now have (my terms) clean cloud and dirty cloud. Clean cloud is Google's vision. This puts pretty well everything on the net. (Sorry, in the cloud.) Your device will have a bit of storage for temporary work, but all your data and all your programs are online. When you want to do something you call up a cloud-based application and access your cloud-based data.

It is, in many ways, a consummation devoutly to be wished (literary reference). Wherever you are, whatever device you have access to, you can simply pick up where you left off. Want to give a Powerpoint presentation in a village hall in Norfolk using their computer? No worries. Need to do a quick edit of a key document using only the seatback video screen of a train? You've got it. Or on your phone, or your tablet, or grannie's TV... you never carry anything, never lose anything, always have everything available.

Leaving aside the trust issues of having all your essential data and programs in someone else's hands, this is a dream scenario with one proviso. A big, fat, juicy proviso. For Google's clean cloud to work you need access to the internet anywhere and everywhere, 24/7 without interruption. The moment you don't have high speed access to the net you are screwed.

Now in some rosy picture of the future where we have high speed wireless access anywhere, this is great, but realistically it is not the world we inhabit. Even the best internet connection is down occasionally, and away from wi-fi hotspots, 3G access is slowish at best - and fails regularly. Just try it on a train. Or in Aldbourne (a village near us where mobile phones rarely work at all).

So traditionally we've fallen back all the way to having everything on the PC with all the limitations that entails. But now, Apple is tempting us with a dirty cloud. Here, the software (an app) resides on your device, but new apps are easily downloadable whenever you have internet access, giving you flexibility. Your data is backed up in the cloud, and can be accessed directly from it when you have a connection, but key data is also held locally so you can work offline. Wherever and whenever you like. As soon as you get a connection, everything is synchronized.

The dirty cloud isn't perfect. There is less flexibility over swapping between devices, particularly if you want to work on someone else's hardware, though it's still entirely possible to swap between your PC, laptop, tablet and phone. Yet it seems the most practical compromise until we do have universal reliable wireless internet - something that seems a good number of years off. What's more, perhaps it's my age, but I'm more comfortable with apps on my device than programs floating in someone else's cloud.

We're already part way to the dirty cloud. A combination of apps and facilities like Evernote and Dropbox that allow wireless synchronization make the online/offline working feasible. Similarly, for example, an app like the Times newspaper requires a connection to download today's paper, but after that you can use it in the darkest, wirelessless (sic) tunnel. And Apple intends to fill out the dirty cloud later this year with its iCloud service which will provide much more automatic wireless sharing of data.

Now much though I love my portable Apple devices, I don't like the Apple closed shop - and with other innovations it has been a case of 'Anything Apple can do, Android can do soon after.' It will be interesting to see if this is the case with the dirty cloud. Because, of course, Android is Google's baby. Will Google throw the baby out with the bathwater by insisting on staying with its pristine but often unusable clean cloud, or will it join in and play dirty? Only time will tell.

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