Friday, October 31, 2008

Lost In The Clouds

I've looked at clouds from both sides now.
From up and down, and still somehow.
It's cloud illusions I recall;
I really don't know clouds at all.

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

The circle is almost complete. Everything old is new again. In our 21st century western society, the network has become almost ubiquitous. Computing power and accessibility has moved so far along the curve propelled by Moore’s Law that we older persons occasionally forget how we lived “BC” - before computers.

The talk these days is of “the cloud”. This is the 21st century term for what we dinosaurs once called the Internet. Web 2.0 has moved services and applications from your desktops into “the cloud”. ThinkFree Office, Open Office, NeoOffice and GoogleTools all offer you the tools to create Microsoft Office compatible documents and the ability to access then over the network wherever you can reach the Internet. eMusic and the iTunes Store are virtual music, software and book stores. This trend points back to the ‘good/bad old days’ of your applications and data living on a server and you connect with a dumb terminal or thin client computer with little or no storage and limited processing power. All the heavy storage and processing is done on the server.

This model fell into disrepute during the development of the personal computer. In the personal computer model, applications and documents were stored locally. You had to buy software and install it on your floppy disk or eventually your hard drive. You can work wherever you are. No one else has control over your access to the processor. That’s right, the processor. In the early days of computing processing time on central mainframe computers was allocated and your job would be scheduled to be run by the administrator - usually a man in a white lab coat carrying a clipboard. Processors were expensive, as was memory and storage space. I recall the joy when I inherited a friend's old 5 MB serial ProFile drive. At last I could run a complete install of HyperCard! Eventually I could afford to bump up the computer’s memory to four MB. Then SCSI hard drives came down in price and I could purchase a fast 10 MB drive...and thus onto the slippery slope.

In a historical perpective, processors, RAM and storage essentially cost nothing today, so computer services are tending to use a variant on the old model. Herewith, three scenarios of the progression in contemporary Internet usage - from server to cloud. 

(Web 1.0) Our AMIS web site lives at a certain web address. Using FTP software on my computer I connect directly to that IP address of that server and modify the files stored on the server, downloading and uploading between the server and my personal computer, my personal computer doing all of the processing for editing and changing the files.

(Web 2.0)My Facebook page is addressed through a web site gateway and as I change it using the application living somewhere on the Facebook server farm appearing in the web browser running on my computer. That data is then updated on my “live page” on Facebook and instantly published.

(Web 2.5) I open my iPhone, snap a picture with my camera. I send it as an E-mail to Evernote and the optical character recognition application in the Evernote server recognises the text and indexes it. I then send the file to either my Flickr gallery, Facebook Gallery or MobileMe service and publish it using the web servers and applications of the respective firm. Or I could go all “old school” and E-mail it to my friends from my phone.

We don’t yet know what Web 3.0 will be. Somewhere, someone is working on it right now. All that we know for certain is that the computers used to access it will be smaller, faster, more powerful and less expensive than they were eighteen months ago.