Life in the cloud: why it is still a pipe dream and years away

For several years now, we’ve been bombarded with the news that soon everything will be ‘cloud’ based. We are constantly being told that physical media will go the way of the eight track tape and analog television.  High speed, reliable internet access will not only make this wonderful world possible, but it will be ubiquitous and cheap. Unfortunately, all of that remains a pipe dream.  And will be for the foreseeable future.

The thing is, not everyone WANTS to be connected like that, at least, not all of the time.  Yes, there is quite a benefit to ‘cloud’ computing, but there are as many pitfalls as well.  That cheap, reliable and ubiquitous internet access is the start.  We are not there yet.  Not by a long shot.  Oh, we are farther along than we were, but we are not close.  We are probably ten years, or more, away from that.  For that goal to be achieved, the providers and the users need to change. 

Internet providers depend on an old and broken model to make money.  The model is based on either the phone service model for ISP’s who are primarily telcos, or on the cable TV model for the cable operators.  None of them operate strictly as an ISP.  Not the big companies, anyway.  As for the small ones, they have to, at some point, rely on cable or phone operators.  So, what’s the problem, it works, right?  Well, yes and no.  It works in that we have fair to OK internet access in a lot of places.  Our cell phones sort of kind of gets you the internet.  Some phones do a better job than others.  But, availability is not even the bigger problem.

The bigger problem is bandwidth and bandwidth caps.  First and foremost are those caps.  Each ISP touts its network and the services it offers as well as all the marvelous things you can do with that speedy network.  That’s all fine and dandy, but if your ISP gives you only 40gb a month or 250gb a month, you could blow through that in no time.  And, mind you, many ISPs limit you to 1 to 10gb a month. Most cell providers ‘unlimited’ access is really 5gb a month and then they start charging you two arms, two legs, your house and your first born.  Some, like Comcast, just get nasty and cut you off for a YEAR and consider you a pirate for using all of that bandwidth. 

And don’t be fooled, those services the ISP provides WILL count toward your bandwidth cap.  I asked ‘Comcast Betty’ over Twitter about that. She told me that ANYTHING you do on the ‘net counts to that bandwidth cap.  And before we vilify Comcast Betty, she was just the messenger.  (Here’s where I do have to commend Comcast:  They have several employees who monitor Twitter and are VERY, VERY helpful.  I thank Comcast Bill and Comcast Betty for the help they have given me.  My only question about this is why do I need to resort to Twitter?  Why can’t I get the same level of support over the phone? At least they are doing this, though.)

ISP aside, the next problem is privacy.  Privacy to many is an after thought.  That’s quite a shame.  It should be the most important thing.  I don’t care how well intentioned a company is, all it takes is a court order or even suspicion in some cases, and companies will bend and hand over YOUR information.    I am not being paranoid here.  This is a real consequence of storing YOUR data in the ‘cloud.’

Another HUGE issue is digital rights management.  There have been some strides made here in quashing this scourge of technology, but, as witnessed recently by Kindle owners, it WILL rear its ugly head.  Recently, Amazon removed two George Orwell books from owners of the Kindle.  While they were correct to refund whatever people had paid, the simple fact is they had that ability.  I fully understand having to be compliant with the law, but I think that removing it from personal libraries was overstepping.  Likewise, other DRM issues can and do arise.  A few years back, several online music sites went dark.  Because the DRM servers were decommissioned,  the content that people PAID for was rendered useless unless they burned it to CDs.  And what happens when content providers want to charge you more for what you already paid for?  It WILL happen.

And there are the cloud based applications.  There is already a plethora of them.  Prior to Apple releasing the iPhone software development kit, the only way one could write an application for the device was to develop a web ‘app’.  Thousands of them were developed.  Some good, some not so good.  Problem was that they were only available while you were connected to the net.  Once you lost connection, you lost use of the app.  iPhone web apps are not the only ones either.  Google, notably, has a whole suite of online apps.  Again, some good, some not so good. They have, as well as Microsoft and Adobe, tried to alleviate the offline issue somewhat by creating tools that allow you to download and run the apps on your device.  Tools like Google gears, Adobe Air and Microsoft Silverlight will allow some of these online apps to run locally and that is a start.  But, just as the online versions, they have limits.  None of these solutions are as robust as a dedicated application that runs native on your device.  Palm, with the introduction of the Pre Smartphone has taken the step of marrying the web to a physical device, but, again, it is not quite as robust as it should be.  Local apps on the Pre are a collection of HTML, JavaScript and other web technologies.  You still have this interpreted layer, which, by the way, was one of the biggest complaints about Visual Basic back in the early nineties: it was interpreted and not truly compiled.  That seems to be a non issue now, but it should be.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is tremendous benefit to cloud computing.  Having my most important information anywhere I go is a huge plus.  Having my wife update a a to do or shopping list on line that I can then access on my Smartphone is a time saver.  The mixed metaphor applications like Evernote that have both a device application and web application are probably the best:  you can work offline while also having the advantages of being ‘in the cloud.’  Microsoft recently announced its next generation Office Suite, Office 2010, which will have both PC and web versions and they will be able to interact.  OneNote will take on some of EverNote’s better features this way.  Other applications like Picasa, a photo management tool, are also pretty nicely integrated with web solutions.  Applications are but one area where this integration needs to take place.  Entertainment is another.

I’m old fashioned in many ways.  I LOVE to go to a brick and mortar store and BUY a DVD or CD.  I like opening that package and actually touching my movies or music.  I have no problems with actually keeping something I paid for, like a CD or DVD.  I have found, though, through listening to podcasts and talking to people, mostly people younger than I, that they don’t have such a love of physical media and, in fact, loathe it.  Some don’t even wish to keep what they bought.  Some of them will pay the ten bucks to buy a movie on iTunes, watch it and then delete it.  This, to me, is a foreign concept.  If I buy a film or song, I want to be able to watch it over and over or listen to it many times.  And this is one reason why I am very hesitant to rely on services such as iTunes or the Zune Marketplace.  You are too restricted in what you can do with what you have paid for:  you are limited to certain devices and you are limited to specific formats that can only be played in certain software.  With a CD, I can play that thing in ANY CD player.  I can watch that DVD in ANY DVD player.  I still have a collection of VHS tapes and Laserdiscs that I can still play.  Granted, devices that plays those formats are no longer made, but there is nothing preventing me from playing them right now.  My point is that, while Pioneer no longer makes or supports the Laserdisc format, I can still use the player and watch my movies.  You can bet that if Apple decides to get out of the video business, you will have a finite amount of time to enjoy what you paid for and they will NOT refund your money.

One day, I’m sure, all or most of the issues I mention will have been resolved.  That day, though, is still pretty far away. 

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