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Beware the cloud

I’ve found personal benefit to moving more and more of my information into “the cloud”. Web-based tools like Google Docs, Twitter, wordpress, delicious, etc. provide the freedom to access my resources regardless of device. The development of smart phones over the last several years makes this model of data creation/access particularly valuable. With MobileMe and LiveMesh, we get the additional value of being able to store resources – via the cloud – across multiple devices. Good ol’ redundancy. All is not well, however. Jonathan Zittrain states:

But the most difficult challenge — both to grasp and to solve — of the cloud is its effect on our freedom to innovate. The crucial legacy of the personal computer is that anyone can write code for it and give or sell that code to you — and the vendors of the PC and its operating system have no more to say about it than your phone company does about which answering machine you decide to buy…This freedom is at risk in the cloud, where the vendor of a platform has much more control over whether and how to let others write new software.

An API is at best a pacifier to sedate the majority, but it is a far cry from open source. To paraphrase Mark Pilgrim: open enough works for running programs now, but it is a long term sacrifice of freedom.


  1. Jon Mott wrote:

    Interesting dimension to consider. Does the ability to create mashups and entirely new webapp compensate for the loss of desktop-based app development? With the imminent launch of the Google OS, the trend appears to be in the direction of web-based app development. Can’t creativity and freedom flourish in this new realm?

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  2. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Jon – yes, I think creativity can flourish. But that freedom will be dependent on Google. If Google decides to change policies/tools (remember Notebook? Jaiku? jotspot?), everything changes. When google provides the infrastructure (and, as a consequence, the freedom), only those ideas with mass appeal and commercial success will survive. Freedom is confined to market success?

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  3. Jim Groom wrote:

    Well put, George.

    I think we are in a strange situation wherein the free and available tools in the cloud seduce us into abandoning a certain amount of control over design and code. And while this pragmatic approach in the short run seems sensible, I do believe it has more dramatic implications on our ability to frame customized spaces and unique online experiences given the real limitations on both extending and hacking—not to mention rolling our own.

    And Google is a perfect example in this regard, because they have all the trimmings for a very powerful LMS with the rollout of Google Wave as a means to bring Docs, YouTuBe, Gmail, Gchat, etc. together, but at the same time defines the environment in which we work to a degree that is far to limiting—and this is even beyond the question of whether it will remain free or not.

    I truly do struggle with this question, and I think we are pulling a King Lear here and giving the Kingdom away far too quickly.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  4. gsiemens wrote:

    Hey Jim, fully agree with you! Web 2.0 seems to have hampered the development of open source. Discussions that should be about freedom and access have been reduced to “is it free?”.

    Like roughly everyone else online, I use Google constantly. Google uses openness as a competitive strategy. When it enters a new market, it enters with an open platform (Android, Open Social). Google is not an evolution of capitalism – i.e. cooperation instead of cut-throat competition. Even if the ideals of Google founders were lofty, once you play in a system long enough, you become the system.

    The danger here isn’t what Google and other companies are doing. The real danger is that not many people seem to be asking questions about assumptions…or even future destinations of current trajectories.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 3:08 pm | Permalink
  5. SadOne wrote:

    I am moving more and more to the cloud but I do so with some concerns. The convenience is fantastic but I could see this turning into another one company such as the Windows OS segment.

    Ever try to download many files at once from Google Docs? We will see how long SOHO lasts before MS of Google buys them out if they haven’t already. Another major concern is these tools really aren’t free. They read our content, catalog our information for advertising and track our online habits so there is a cost to the cloud.

    These issues haven’t deterred me from moving to the cloud but we should be discussing them.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  6. Interesting questions but I think that our ability to quickly and easily set up a hosted web space with a decent technology stack means that it is possible to continue to roll ones own app or use any number of open source web applications such as WordPress or Moodle etc etc. Isn’t this a boon to open source?

    It is in Google’s interest to maintain openness. It was interesting to see Wired’s story about the DOJ watching Google very carefully ( Then again perhaps I am biaised having been a developer for nearly 15 years but always for the web not for desktops.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  7. concerned wrote:

    There are other risks:
    - higher risk of privacy violations (a risk even for FORTUNE 100 companies)
    - it’s “big brother” at its best. All your activities, all your files will be exposed to anyone that has access – you’re basically surrendering the power that privacy gives you.
    - monitored activities means lower competition between products…as your usage habits are documented corporations can charge you more for those specific uses/features/services

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 6:26 pm | Permalink
  8. Jody Baty wrote:

    Jonathan Zittrain states
    The crucial legacy of the personal computer is that anyone can write code for it and give or sell that code to you — and the vendors of the PC and its operating system have no more to say about it than your phone company does about which answering machine you decide to buy

    Ah yes, the good old days of service packs, missing dlls, patching, version control, and distribution nightmares. If there is anything that discourages innovation, it’s combing through registry entries on client machines to trying to find dll conflicts.

    I hear what you are saying about the restrictions of the some of the web cloud computing platforms. And it is a valid concern. But it has also never been easier, faster or cheaper to roll your own application from scratch thanks to services such as Amazon’s EC2 Cloud Computing. This type of service gives access to world-class computing power, levels the playing field, and encourages innovation and development from all players – not just large development shops.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  9. Alan Levine wrote:

    Bah, cloud humbug. I find Zittrain’s column way over reaching. It leads with an assumption that the future is an all or nothing proposition, that we are forced to be Google sucking zombots. No one is forcing you into a locked OS.

    If you hang all your stuff in the cloud w/o a backup or other strategy, it is the same as locking all your data on some rickety old hard drive with a bad platter.

    We’ve seen nothing but demos and blog posts on the Google OS and Wave, yet seem to be riding predictions based on fumes. I *like* the promise of Wave, yet don’t see it as Jim does as a monolithic thing one is locked into, but a communications widget to weave into other content as we see fit (ahem as innovators usually do).

    If you fear what happens when Big Momma Google decides to flip a feature on or off, sure, but you might as well consider the implications of the entire network (e.g. DNS, the end if enough IP addresses, what if the pipes burst? we are all hosed).

    He also seems to lock into the cloud end of hosted apps/services where you *use* them (like packaged software- ahem Office), and neglects to emphasize as Jody remarks as to what a cloud server offers.

    Bah, get offa my cloud.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 9:00 am | Permalink