What cloud computing means for the real world

IT execs fear security problems, but from almost every other perspective, cloud computing makes a lot of sense.

There are more than a few critics of cloud computing, even at PCWorld; I'm probably one of them. But I've been turning over in my mind different perspectives on the cloud. I've tried to set aside the views of the IT executive, who seems to dominate the debate.

Instead, I've been thinking about what it offers lowly end-users, or for programmers who create the software. What does cloud computing mean for the rest of us?

As far as computer-illiterate end-users are concerned, cloud computing offers many benefits. For example, have you ever lost a file or an update to a document, because you didn't save it before a crash happened?

With an online office suite like Google Docs, it's impossible to lose work. Files are automatically saved every few seconds. There's even revisioning, meaning that you can step back to a file when it was in a previous state. Google Docs isn't alone in offering this. Cloud file storage service Dropbox lets you revert to a previous version of your files, too.

The best part is that cloud services don't even require users to understand what "saving" is. There's no longer a need to understand file systems, ushering in a level of simplicity computer engineers have been searching for since the personal computer was invented.

Cloud computing offers more permanence for your files than desktop computing. Give yourself a few minutes to think about that. CDs degrade over time. Hard disks crash. But no file will ever disappear from the cloud unless you choose to delete it.

Sure, a cloud provider can go bust. But online providers usually give you ample warning to get your data off their service if that kind of thing happens. And, try as I might, I really can't see a company like Google going under anytime soon.

How about looking at cloud computing from a programmer's point of view? For a programmer, cloud computing offers something that's been desired for years--the ability to create software that's operating system independent. If you manage to make your app work in Firefox and Chrome running on Windows, then in all likelihood, it will work well on Mac and Linux computers too. Mobile computing devices are also invited to the party, or at least contemporary devices that have the power to run such apps.

Even if a few tweaks are necessary, they'll be nothing like the complexity of recoding applications for every different platform.

How about looking at the cloud from a worker's point of view? The biggest boon here is that if a file is stored in the cloud, it will always be available. In other words, if you need that updated spreadsheet from John, there's no need to nag him to send it to you by e-mail. You can just grab the file from the cloud, even if he's still working on it. In suites like Google Docs, you could even open the file, open the chat component, and speak to him as he's editing.

IT managers complain about cloud security issues, but what about the security benefits? For starters, cloud computing means there's only ever a central, single version of each file. There will never be versions of potentially confidential files stored on laptops or USB memory sticks, or just about anywhere somebody needed to edit it (maybe even--horror!--on Internet café computers).

Additionally, all documents are located in one location, so managers can see at a glance what's going on. John from Accounts might have told you he spent all last night working on the spreadsheet, but now you can see whether that's true and what changes he's made, because the cloud is excellent at tracking revisions and edits.

This and other thought exercises indicate the biggest problem facing the cloud is a lack of usage scenarios. At the moment software companies are throwing their cloud products at us and concentrating on making them better, rather than telling us how they can be used. For cloud apps there's often no tried and trusted path as there is with, say, Microsoft Office, which everybody knows offers clearly identified business benefits.

It's down to education. Cloud vendors should spend less time telling us about all the great new features, and spend more time showing their products in real-life situations. Only then are we going to get into the cloud computing mindset.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

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