All the talk has been so about cloud computing this, the cloud that, and I’m sick of it because it’s rubbish whether it’s paid for or free. Here’s why:
1) Murphy’s law:
Any application that fundamentally depends on internet access or a hosted service will not work when you really need it. Let’s use Google maps on your mobile is a prime example. It’s a great app, one which I use. It’s pretty fast and it works well with the built-in GPS on my phone. I use it when I’m going somewhere and like a backup, but I would never, ever rely on it for primary navigation. You walk through a tunnel or under some power lines, and next thing you know you get a pop-up saying you need to re-connect. Not good if you’re lost or in a hurry. Can you imagine the horror when the presentation you were just about to set up becomes unavailable because of a local provider problem? Anyone who has been through September 11th (I have) or 7/7 (I had that day off thankfully) will realize how quickly communication can break down. If I’d been reliant on a connected application to find my way out of ground zero I would’ve been screwed. It’s not just in disaster scenarios: just a power outage, a sever blowing a diode, or an idiot with a backhoe can cut you off from your data.
2) Cloud computing gives other people control of your data.
In order for a cloud app provider to make their money they have to make you as dependent on them as possible, so when they balance the need for you to be able to use your data independently with their need for profit guess which side the bread will be buttered on. With all the disclaimers and legalease you sign (or click you’ve read when you haven’t) they are basically saying that your data is theirs to treat as they want. Worst case is that they give you a service and then change that service to extort money out of you. That app they said gives you access to your data locally? Well, it just got locked out until you agree to pay a monthly fee. That supposedly open format your documents are in has been changed to a proprietary encrypted format. You think it can’t happen? It’s only a matter of time before it does.
I’m not expecting much evil to be honest, but I do expect widespread indifference and incompetence due to the nature of the beast. Web companies make a profit because they make tiny amounts of money very, very often and they keep their costs as low as possible. Automation is the order of the day and your chances of getting human help are slim at best.
The only one with a vested interest in your important data is you, not them and you should never surrender control of it, EVER. What happens when they lose your data and they have no backups because someone screwed up? Remember that agreement you signed, the one that absolves them of any responsibility?
A good example of this is iTunes. It’s not a cloud app but it demonstrates the problem perfectly. It’s handy and it works, but they require you use their formats and their products and if you ever want to change you have to resort to 3rd party hacks of questionable legality and dubious origin just to gain control of your own music! Imagine if that was your tax documents or that novel you’ve been working on!
3) cloud computing lessens your power of choice:
On my PC I can decide to upgrade an application or not, and if I don’t like it I can chose another application. Not so with cloud applications. Once you’re on it the provider makes these choices for you and there isn’t much you can do about it. Sure, it may be great now but what happens when they start to suck? What happens when they change the feature that made you chose that app in the first place? It’s not likely to be an easy change to a new app.
4) security concerns:
One of the best hacking bangs for the buck has got to be web applications services. Look at the Twitter debacle where sensitive company documents were leaked out because a hacker guessed a username and password. If this hacker had broken into a PC he/she would have had to do some serious digging to get that level of sensitive information whereas in this case everything he/she could have wanted to find was all neatly organized, all that needed to be done was pull the files. One of the selling points of cloud apps is that they are available from everywhere, you can use any web browser in the world to access them, so this means ANYONE in the world can try and hack them and if they do that can spell disaster for the individual or organization. Take facebook for example; in a recent case a jilted boyfriend hacked into the facebook account of his ex and did enough personal damage to her to get sent to the big house, and that is just a social site!
It’s not just the individual cases, these cloud app providers have huge targets painted on them for anyone looking to steal personal data. Why go for an individual account when you go for the whole enchilada? There’s no reason you’d know it either as the app provider might a) not know about it or b) be trying to cover it up until after the annual report is announced. Again, they have a vested interest to protect themselves and not you.
5) centralized apps mean centralized risks:
back in the days of mainframes and timesharing any problem that effected the system impacted all the users on that system in a big way. One hour of computer downtime could mean 100 hours of lost productivity which is why when the PC came along it was an enormous leap forward. At last a computer problem would only effect one person! Now we’re talking about reversing that trend and going back to centralization when history has shown what a bad idea it is.
6) Bandwidth is the least reliable but most vital part of the equation:
Let’s face it, unless you live in South Korea you won’t be able to get internet access in every toilet, forest, and sub-basement, therefore you have limited access to your data. If I need urgent access to my medical records and the airport web access is down I’m out of luck. Furthermore mobile web access is extremely expensive, especially when travelling so why would you want to depend on it?
7) we don’t need it:
My phone is many times more powerful than my PC was 10 years ago and has an enormous amount of storage. I have a music collection and a fully-fledged mobile documents suite. The whole thing syncs to my PC so if I lose the device I’m not screwed. My home PC has a bucketload of useful apps, and since it’s behind a firewall it’s somewhat protected. Any vital files I can keep on a truecrypt-protected USB stick and carry with me. I’m not the only one with these capabilities, they are becoming ubiquitous with more power and storage in the palm of your hand every year. With all this capability why would anyone want to use an application that is insecure, is expensive or sometimes impossible to connect to, and where you are utterly beholden to the provider of the service when there’s no benefit? If computing power was a commodity then I could understand but bandwidth is the commodity in this model. The main selling point is the weakest part of the equation.
The web’s a fantastic medium with a huge variety of extremely useful applications and rich sources of information, and I think there’s plenty of good stuff coming down the pipe. I do however think that there’s no technical reason whatsoever for cloud computing given the proliferation of powerful portable devices and tiny portable storage, and there are significant disadvantages due not only to security and reliability concerns but also about the control of your data. It’s like putting all your eggs in one basket and then giving it to someone you don’t know to carry who will only let you look at them.
Ubiquitous powerful computing has completely eroded any benefit of centralized applications when it comes to non-social or non-collaborative sites. What we need is better mobile applications that will increase productivity on the move, and better standards to improve interoperability rather than some kind of browser app war with no benefits to the user.