The Beauty of ‘The Cloud’

on Jan 30, 2011

Imagine having a second brain – one that’s not just limited to the knowledge and information from your own self, but also has the collective knowledge of the world. This is no dream – it is real, here, and now – thanks to the emergence of cloud computing.

I’ve been speaking obsessively about the cloud for well over two years now. Yet it seems that not everyone understands what this means (someone may not be so technologically adept or they may be mixed up with the broad and different usages of the term cloud). This became apparent a month ago when I stopped using AOL Instant Messenger, citing incompatibility with the cloud as my reason – which resulted in a lot of questions from friends. So let me provide a clear definition of what I see as the cloud.

In a nutshell, the cloud is about having information (in its many manifestations as discussed below) universally accessible. The internet and all our various computers (with net access) are the tools that make this possible.

Access to the Cloud

In developed parts of the world and especially in urban areas, the internet is ubiquitous. Most people of at least moderate wealth can afford to own an internet capable device that fits inside their pockets (and can carry it with them at all times). I’m talking about app phones like the iPhone and Android devices as well as the iPod Touch and the plethora of tablet computers coming this year. This is the future – try and find a teenager that isn’t carrying one of these things. From the dedicated data lines available on these devices to the WiFi hotspots all over the place, all these devices are connected to the internet and its arsenal of information.

Types of Information

First, we have the world’s collective knowledge. Something like Wikipedia is astonishing in its own right. When I was a kid, I was among the few of my peers to have a computer at home and be able load up an encyclopedia on CD. So I had instant access to mostly up-to-date information while in my household. For anyone that was older than I was, the hunt for such knowledge as a child involved a trip to the library or bookstore (excluding the minority of folks that had expensive dead-tree encyclopedias in their homes). Jump to today – you can look up something on Wikipedia in an instant with your app phone and from any urban area. What I find more exciting is that we’re way beyond just encyclopedias of knowledge. You can see incredible people discuss world-stirring ideas on TED or learn an academic subject for free through the Kahn Academy. The collective knowledge of the world spreads further since any individual can share his or her insights through blog posts (such as this one you’re reading right now).

Another form of information harnessed into the cloud is media. TV shows and movies are available via Hulu and Netflix streaming, while more personal videos are seen on YouTube. Online news, from large news presses to bloggers, is instant – in accessibility and coverage. Print news is old news. Cloud music has made strides over the years, from online “stations” like Shoutcast, Pandora, and Slacker Radio to more collection style like mSpot (lets you upload your music online and access it from an internet connected device) to Spotify (pay a monthly fee access the world’s music library on any internet capable device [not yet available in the US]). I’m most excited for the recent rise of ebooks, which will overtake purchases of all dead-tree books in just a couple of years, if not sooner. I’ve waited my whole life to carry a library in my pocket; an added bonus is that with certain ebook platforms (like Kindle), even my highlighting and notes are stored in the cloud and accessible on all my devices. Even video gaming has moved on to the cloud. Steam is pretty popular among PC gamers since one can simply purchase and install games without leaving their chair (similar to how most other software is now acquired). Even more intriguing is the service OnLive, which doesn’t require any installation as the game lives and runs on their servers (in the cloud). Their box serves simply to bridge their servers to your TV and controllers.

The last major form of information is the kind we use personally. Communications are one part of this. Web based email (do people outside of corporations use anything else?) is ubiquitous and has served as a cloud based dumping ground for thoughts and files for years. Instant messaging, besides being always accessible, like via app phones, also allows us to store our chat logs online (AIM wasn’t good about this so I stopped using it). It’s incredibly handy to be able to reference a digital conversation from earlier when out and about. The same applies for other personal records like contacts, voicemails, and bank records. Even our productivity has moved to the cloud. Services like Google Docs put an end to losing your work if your computer crashes and the hassle of carrying work around on flash drives. A real interesting item in the cloud is our location. My app phone transmits my location online where certain trustworthy individuals can find out where I am at any given time (this has proved helpful in streamlining my communications). Likewise, this bit of information is very useful when combined with other tools, like to find nearby restaurants.

Where the Beauty Lies

The amount of information available today is tremendous and it’s only growing. Likewise, every single one of these forms of information is instantly accessible. Knowledge, TV shows, reading material, emails, documents – it takes mere seconds to get to this stuff and from anywhere there’s internet. There’s no need to print out stuff. There’s no need to spend unnecessary effort remembering every little thing. I’ve offloaded quite a lot to the cloud – which allows my brain space to do more advanced things.

Some Potential for Disaster

Now of course there are risks inherent in all this. Ease of access for us also means others can potentially have that same ease of access to our information. It’s a tradeoff but there are plenty of safeguards in place, should we use them wisely. Likewise, we do have to trust all these cloud services to respect our information. Transparency in these policies is important and we should insist on it. Also, by using the cloud heavily as I do, one does become dependent on it. Losing access to it can spell trouble or at the very least might be unnerving (I admit that I feel strangely uncomfortable when riding on the subway, where the lack of internet cuts me off from my article feeds, streaming music, and chats). Still, most systems are pretty reliable and we should still be smart about things. For example, I often memorize driving directions and use my navigation unit more for backup guidance. Again, it’s all a tradeoff and I feel I’m gaining significantly more in taking what the cloud has to offer.

The Future is in The Cloud

The handiness of the cloud is expanding in so many ways. Information is but one tool we find essential in our daily lives; there are other tools that the cloud has reached out to. Web applications are among the most interesting of these. Programs live in the cloud and sometimes offer usefulness beyond their desktop counterparts. For example, the aforementioned service, Google Docs, brings the ability for multiple individuals to collaborate on a document in real time. More of what we use on the desktop will move to the cloud. Other paradigms will shift for the better. Installing and maintaining software will no longer be a burden of the user. Printing out stuff will become passé (if it isn’t already). Powerful computers for personal use will be a thing of the past (except for specialists that really need it). It’s no surprise that anemic devices such as app phones, iPads, and netbooks are wildly popular – they offload their need for power to the cloud, where there is neither idleness nor wasted CPU cycles. Isn’t that just beautiful?