How crisis leads to progress (aka the Cloud)

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Here is an admittedly tiny and prosaic example of a big and poetic idea–the idea in Kipling’s If and in my book that disaster can be an impostor (as can triumph). The disaster in this case is more of a nuisance, but you will get the point.

1) The nuisance

My (youngish) Mac Book Pro has had a boo-boo. The screen started going black (why do “screens of death” have to be blue anyway?).

I happen to be in the Apple elite, equipped with all sorts of plastic cards (Apple Care, Pro Care….) that allegedly bestow privilege upon me. So I went to the Apple Store, itself famous for allegedly being at the cutting edge of retail savoir-faire, to get the laptop fixed. I brandished my cards and, after a stressful wait, succeeded in persuading a helpful staff member to …. schedule an appointment, two days hence, for me to come back and get my laptop fixed.

Two days later, I dutifully returned (traffic, parking garages….) to the famous store. Another stressful wait. Somebody took my laptop. The next day, they called to say that they needed another part (the RAM). They called again two days later to say that they needed yet another part (the logic board). Then they left a voice mail (Apple’s iPhone, which I also own, had not rung as it ought to when a call comes in) to say that it would be faster (sic) to send the laptop to a distant part of the country where logic boards are more plentiful, but that they needed my approval. I called back, but they had left for the day.

I called again the next day–at 10AM, when they start work–and gave my approval. The laptop, I was told, would now be en route “from 5 to 7 days”. This was 5 days after my original visit to the famous store with my fancy cards. My lap has been, and remains, untopped.

2) Why I expected this to be a big deal

I am a nomadic worker, and my laptop in effect is my yurt, or office, and thus one of the two West Coast Bureaus of The Economist (the other bureau being the laptop of Martin Giles in San Francisco, who replaced me in my previous beat). So I assumed that no laptop meant no bureau, no articles, no work. I assumed this because this was my experience in 2005, when another laptop of mine died.


3) Why it’s not

But things have changed since 2005. Something called “cloud computing” has come along, diagrammed above. It’s an old idea newly implemented: that information and intelligence reside in the network, to be accessed by “appliances” or “terminals” which we nowadays call web browsers. If you use web mail, Facebook, WordPress, Flickr, YouTube etc etc then you are computing in the cloud. You are not longer storing and crunching data in the machine on your lap. Instead, you are doing it on the internet.

After my previous laptop disaster in 2005, I began to train myself (I am a technophobe by nature) to start using the internet instead of perishable machines. Gmail, Google Calendar (which I share with my wife and a few other people), Google Reader, Facebook, and so forth.

Slowly, I started migrating more and more activities into the cloud. This was slow because of inertia. But I kept at it. My phones (Skype and Google Voice) are now online, as are many of my photos.

So it occurred to me, before going back to the Apple Store, to complete this process. I put all of my current or important documents on Google Docs. This was surprisingly quick and easy. I had never understood why I was using Microsoft Office in the first place, since it was bursting with features that I never use and that confuse me.

Now, instead of emailing my editor a Word doc, I “share” a Google Doc with him.

So now my digital life is entirely in the cloud. As some of you have noticed, even though I have not had my laptop, I have been “on”. Nothing has changed. I use my wife’s laptop, or somebody else’s, or my iPhone, which is almost as good. I no longer really care about my laptop.

4) Progress = Bye bye, Steve, bye bye Bill

At some point, I may yet get my snazzy Mac Book Pro back from this famous Apple Store. Will I care? Enough to go to the store one more time to pick it up. Barely.

The truth is that this slight nuisance, this mini-crisis, nudged me to do what I should have done long ago. It forced me to liberate myself from Microsoft’s software and Apple’s hardware, neither of which I need any longer. Yes, there are some new vulnerabilities (there always are). But I am, if not free, a lot freer.

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69 thoughts on “How crisis leads to progress (aka the Cloud)

  1. ……I had never understood why I was using Microsoft Office in the first place, since it was bursting with features that I never use and that confuse me……

    I never did use Microsoft Office. But your reaction to it was the same as mine to Microsoft Word, which I found so incomprehensible (I’m the ultimate technophobe) because of all the stuff on it I would never dream of using, that, before I discovered Google Documents, I would write all my non e-mail stuff (like blogs) on my e-mail programme.

    Incidentally, from what I hear of the new Windows 7, to use it is as as good as using a Mac.

    • Actually, Microsoft Office is the umbrella term (or “suite”, as they call it) for Word, Excel and Powerpoint and a few bits and bobs that no ordinary human would need or care about. So I was in effect also talking about MS Word.

      Unbelievable how they junked it up over the years and then forced me to pay for it.

      Very interesting that you and I, both technophobes, are using Google Docs. It appears to be a classic case of “disruptive innovation” a la Clay Christensen, defined as innovation that aims at the LEAST demanding users, or non-users, as opposed to the most demanding.

  2. Ever having to take your computer to the Apple store is a nightmare! Even if you make an appointment you can be waiting for hours. By the time I graduated college this may I was using this “cloud” more and more mainly because it allowed me to work on my iPhone to do procrastinated papers and print anywhere on campus. But when I enter my next desk job (im a nanny now no need for my macbook) I will use this cloud more like you did. PS send in your computer online next time saves time and hell its literally putting your computer in the cloud (their UPS self addressed box).

    • A lot of people seem to think those stores are nightmares. I wonder how they became this alleged model for retailers.

      Or is it the Yogi Berra dynamic? “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

      Good luck nannying. We just found a new nanny for our kids, after a long search. The most important person in our lives, aside from ourselves.

  3. As a student who questions trends such as “Cloud Computing”, I sometimes play the devil’s advocate and ask, whether it is safe to migrate important documents to the Internet. People forget that the Internet is a very unsafe place where security concerns will always play a part. The Internet has become a large data mining warehouse where everyone’s actions are being tracked, analysed and probably used as statistics for research purposes. Whatever we say or do can be seen by anybody and everybody. So the thing is, I totally agree Cloud Computing is a great tool for some people such as yourself but whether it is the best tool it’s still arguable. I will still be wary of the Internet… do becareful of documents that are very important. You don’t ever know who is watching.

    • I don’t understand how safe is your data sitting in your laptop or personal computer with just a anti virus installed? Better leave the security part to the specialists in clouds.And ‘…Whatever we say or do can be seen by anybody and everybody in internet….that sounds quite exaggerated

    • Consider me warned, Layla.

      Having said that, I looked into privacy and security for some stories I wrote for The Economist and interviewed the Google guys about their processes. I think the fears are vastly overdone. (I say that as one who used to stoke them.)

      But the bigger irony is this: Right now my laptop, whose passwords I had to leave behind in the Apple Store, is being groped and fondled by hirsute goblins in Apple Warehouses and UPS centers. They could be reading my entire life history. They could be filing my next taxes. And so it is for everybody who sends their machine in. And yet: Not a peep about privacy/security concerns there.

    • Why are we so anxious about privacy (apart from the rather remote risk of loss)? People in this neighbourhood, living cheek-by jowl, still try to grow vegetation up high for fear someone might be interested in their dull lives. That’s so, whether it’s Midsummer, night-time, or even dreamland. All our primitive side carries over into the Net.

    • And on the other side: The houses in my neighborhood have huge windows that allow any pedestrian to look all the way into and through the house, to bedrooms and beds, kitchens and living rooms, TV screens and closets. talk about Feng Shui.

      The inhabitants, meanwhile, may well be worrying about how Google places little text ads next to their Gmail emails.

      Bizarre creature, Homo Sapiens.

  4. Apple… i never used their technics but it seems to be very popular. i think the main popularity of Apple is thanks to different films where characters always use Apple..

  5. One thing I’m a bit wary of with cloud computing is not backing up the stuff that is written somewhere else (like you laptop or a PC hard drive) because after a while when you have accumulated a lot of content online you run the risk that the company providing that service decides that they will no longer offer that service for whatever reason.
    With Google you are safe and sound for the time being but other on-line services are capable of going bust or fazing out the service.
    If wordpress announced that it was closing then would you want you blogs archives somewhere or not?
    If flckr’s terms of service changed and you would lose your account then are your photos elsewhere?

    Cloud Computing is a great thing but reliance upon it for storing stuff ‘forever’ isn’t a given!

    • As I see it, the evolution of digital information will parallel that of banking: You might, in the 19th century, have said the exact same think with the words “money” or “gold” replacing “information” or “documents”. Ie, people began to put more of their wealth into banks as opposed to under mattresses, calculating that the risks of the mattresses were greater while still worrying about the risks of the banks.

      Over time, we developed rules for the banks. Such as: the money in it is YOURS, not the bank’s. You see that now with Google and WordPress: The data is considered yours and when you want to leave (=switch banks) you can take your data with you.

      Today, you don’t think twice about depositing your pay check into your bank and then drawing from it from any ATM or debit card reader. In future, you will not think twice about depositing your information in the Cloud.

    • Nice post – and an interesting discussion following it

      closing down “the cloud” actually happened couple years ago in my line of business, which is professional photography. Digital Railroad, one of the big players in the field (along with still existing Photoshelter) totally unexpectedly announced that they would close their business, and you (the client) would have something like 48 hours to retrieve your content and then it would be deleted. Now, 48 hours is not a lot of time – and professional level photography takes lots of storage space and bandwith (i.e time) to move across the net.
      We are talking dozens of gigs of material at least per person and thousands of people (whose daily bread was at least partly dependent on this service) affected. It was a big issua at the time (with lots of twist we don’t have to get into now).
      But, point being: it can happen – and it does happen.

    • That must have sucked.

      Then again–sticking with my banking analogy–we are probably in cloud computing where banking was in the 19th century, when runs on banks were common….

  6. Very interesting post.

    I think that my comfort with windows, office and computer hardware will serve as a barrier for me when the rest of the world moves to cloud computing. I’m reminded of my dad, who was cutting edge and comfortable with computer hardware, but never understood broadband. Even in 1996 he was cutting edge, but now he still uses a 56k modem.

    I probably won’t move personally-consumed data to the cloud for a while. I live in too many places with too many firewalls, so I’d rather have my data close to the chest.

    • Yes, that is the “inertia” factor. It also held me back.

      That’s why I think “crises” (eg, a broken or lost laptop) will be the think that nudges people like you into the new world, as a crisis this week nudged me.

      It’s a bit similar to evolution: A species does fine (and its allele frequencies don’t even change much) for a few generations, then an environmental crisis presents itself, and a new round of natural selection fairly quickly leads to a new species.

  7. That’s a very interesting post and discussion. My two cents: it would be great if Google Docs would support TeX (the file format the scientists use) . Now one can insert equations written in LaTeX in the Google Docs but that’s not quite it yet.

    • I don’t know about LaTeX, but I’ve been writing a book, and the main reason I did not use Google Docs for that was that it does not support footnotes and endnotes.

      But I think that comes over time. It’s the trajectory that is worth noting. (With cloud computing, you never have to upgrade your software, since they do it for you, so the new features suddenly show up one day and you didn’t even know it.)

      What are you researching?

    • I think (La)Tex (S)ux. It can be very tedious to collaborate with people across platforms and distracts one from the form of prose while writing and editing. However, this is not an obstacle for the great mind working alone. The whole concept of WYSIWYG and WYSIWYM is kind of patronizing. If you don’t know these acronyms and are not familiar with LaTeX (pronounced Lay-tech), you haven’t been properly hazed by the academic world. To be fair, it must have its place, but bringing LaTex to the masses by way of the Cloud is not a priority.

  8. Great post and interesting discussion! My two cents: it would be great if Google Docs would support writing in (La)TeX (the file format scientists use). Now you can insert equations in LaTeX but that’s not quite it yet.

  9. Nice write-up about your move to cloud computing and how it has benefitted you. Many of the commentors raise valid concerns about the concept, but I think that we will see these issues resolve themselves as cloud computing matures.
    I like your banking analogy to compare keeping your data on your desktop to storing it in the cloud. Nonetheless, thisisalloneword, makes a good point and I would advocate backing your data up locally whenever possible. (Unfortunately, with banking, this same strategy – making copies of your money – isn’t legal :-).)
    I don’t completely agree with your conclusion that cloud computing can replace your own hardware (PC, Mac, iPhone, etc.). For at least the foreseeable future, there are going to be some applications that just don’t make sense to put in the cloud. You also need some kind of device to actually access the cloud.
    However, the cloud will be changing many our computer-usage habits. Two of the most important benefits for desktop users, as you point out, is portability and the freedom from relying on your own machine.
    As you could imagine, the technology is continually changing and I can see the service offerings from the Internet/cloud only improving.

    • “For at least the foreseeable future, there are going to be some applications that just don’t make sense to put in the cloud…”.

      Agreed. Video editing and the like. Things that make unusual demands on the processor. The trajectory here will be: As long as the bus speed of the local machine is faster than the internet connection, those very intensive apps will stay local. Once the internet connection gets so fast that it no longer makes much of a difference, they will move too….

    • I like your metric of comparing bus speed to Internet connection speed. I would say that network speed will never be as fast as a PC’s bus speed. However, I don’t think it has to be for cloud computing to make sense. Network speed just has to be fast enough.
      With the currently-available network bandwidth, applications with heavy I/O (input/output, for our less techie readers), such as your example of video-editing software, make more sense to host on one’s local machine. The reason is because of its I/O requirements, not processor speed. Providers of serious cloud computing service, in which you host your own applications in their server farm (Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, for instance), actually offer more processor power than you could find on a typical desktop.
      Cloud computing is a tradeoff between processor power and I/O speed. However, as available network bandwidth improves, this tradeoff will become less and less significant and more I/O-intensive applications will be possible to run in the cloud.

  10. apple without steve job is like a plane without a pilot, it will go down. it is fair to say that so far the progress made by apple have to be attribuated to steve’s great mind. your analogy is a realy good thing but i also have to agree that cloud computign wil never replace my Mac. Atleast it is great to see good ideas around and that makes the business more competitive.

  11. I’ve been reading all these comments with much interest, and thinking that if they could have appeared in an internet discussion fifteen years ago, or even a lot less, they would have made little sense to a reader of that time. So increasingly dependent are we upon all our ever more sophisticated technology, we wonder how we ever did without it.

    As I wrote the above, I thought about a documentary film I saw five or so years ago, called “The Story of the Weeping Camel”, set in deepest Mongolia. It is about a small band of nomadic people living in tents, who eke out a living in the harshest of environments, flat and arid, with frequent howling windstorms which would blow away the tents if their dwellers didn’t affix them firmly to the ground. Central to the people coping with everyday life, is having camels to transport them around, and generally act as beasts of burden.

    Without electricity, indoor plumbing, credit cards, cushy jobs, social security, and the other comforts we take for granted, including, of course, laptops and cloud computing, it is a milieu as far removed from ours as we can imagine.

    However, should something happen to cause all our very fragile technology to crash (think only of the consequences of communications satellites being shot down) who would deal better with its’ loss – ourselves, or the Mongolian tent-dwellers?

    • Excellent concept and well worth pursuing by most, if only personal data is beiing shifted to the cloud. When the data is professional data, held by you on behalf of your clients. You have to bear in mind liabilities to your clients if someone in cloud is a bit of a shadowy character. It just might not be worth giving up total control, even though maintianing your own networks and software is painfully expensive and irksome, especially if you are a small business owner. I work in a law firm, and we shifted data to the cloud. It ws great for a couple of years cos we could work from home. Then the cloud owner, wanted to shift it to the stratosphere, ie sucontract it and move it to a third party. Only the third party didn’t want to warrant that our clients data would be secure, and neither would the cloud owner. So we had to come back to earth.

    • Lovely comment, Phil. I enjoyed your description of the Mongolian tent-dwellers.

      Nomads ( including the likes of Mr.Kluth!) would cope much better than those of us Tweeting and competing, addicted to Firefox and Facebook.

      The fact that Mr. Kluth has garnered 33 comments thus far on a boring topic such as this (storage, computers, stuff, gigabytes, etc.) says something in itself!

      Maybe I should quit writing stories about Plato and Socrates, Hester and Ma Joad, and write about technology. 😦

      I know, you philosophers out there will challenge the meaning of the word boring and its subjectivity.

      And good!

  12. A question to all you ‘security’ minded people, what data is safer, data on your computer plugged into the data backbone or data on a file server managed by a team of professionals plugged into the same data backbone? I bet holding on to a scratchable CD makes you feel good too.

    • I have to add, what you are calling ‘the cloud’ is actually remote storage with secure multi point access. A cloud is more typically and accurately described as one or more virtual machines running on or in one or more actual machines. It is scalable and exceptionally fault tolerant since it often runs in more than one geographical location. Google and Amazon online services are on cloud devices and they sell time on their clouds.

    • The term ‘cloud’ has been used in so many different ways, the exact meaning is not completely clear. I would agree with your definition, but I think the topic of this blog actually fits that definition as well. Cloud computing comprises processor resources as well as storage space. The author is using applications that mostly run in the cloud and use such resources.
      Does that mean he is actually doing “cloud computing?” That is subject to debate, but he is benefitting from applications that are.

    • At least in the first case all said security minded people know who to blame.

      I get more embarrassed than usual when I return to my comment on ” “, Mr Crotchety. I beg you to return your comment on that comment to its original position so that the whole world can enjoy endless, harmless laughter.

  13. Bizarre Homo Sapiens, yes.

    A colleague of mine was recently horrified on checking an e-mail in his Gmail account. One of Gmail’s features is that it automatically recognizes event notifications in your e-mail and offers to add them to your calendar. And it does so quite well – recognizing date, venue, event name and such. While my colleague initially thought the feature was “cool”, he later realized this probably meant Google was reading/scanning his mails to be able to offer such features.

    I was quite unable to understand what mattered ultimately to him. Is it the notion of loss of privacy, or an automatic functionality that makes checking mails easier?

  14. I am not even close to being as tech savvy as you or those who’ve commented, but this article was very interesting and I could actually understand it because it was well written in term that even a newbie like me could understand. I haven’t heard of Google docs. I’m going to go figure it out. This is a great blog and the comments here are also really helpful. I think if I hang around I will not be tech un-savvy for long. 😀

  15. Great article.

    I initially went to wordpress looking for blog hosting and found your blog featured. It was the first one I read and was impressed and entertained.

    As one who runs fault tolerant systems for both work and home, cloud computing has its allure, as with any proposal it has points for and points against.

    It was interesting to read that most of the negative reactions to your post comes from concerns regarding security. Security is not an absolute. Think in likelihood and costs.

    Is it likely that a very highly paid (compared to industry standards) a google or yahoo employee would find a given set of data useful? Out of all the petabytes available they find yours in a timeframe to be useful. Most security concerns are vastly overstated, as you mentioned in your post.

    Most people would find vulnerabilities that compromise your system are not looking for data, they just want access to online banking ( valuable, and timely).

    Given all that, I am now keen to research more into personal cloud computing.

    thanks for a great post

    • Interesting point. I think this is a valid argument for security. Gorttman would probably agree, however, that certain information, such as online banking passwords and credit card numbers, can be really sensitive data. These are not only of potential interest to third parties, but can also be very costly to you if they were revealed to others. For these cases, you should not upload it or enter it on any site unless it is encrypted.

  16. Great, and I agree, but.. there is always a but… now you depend on google… the new american monopoly… and man, good luck with that… they are on the business of selling information…

  17. As television screen as gas called neon on the tubes while advance VDU has plasma and liquid crystallite.What kind of liquid or gas will screen of galatic picture and time travel will have to show a full colour photo.

  18. I agree with you in theory. Nice to get rid of the dependency on Microsoft’s software and Apple’s hardware, as you said. The frightening part for me is the new vulnerabilities. I know, I’m vulnerable now to system updates and hardware malfunctions but I have lived and worked with these vulnerabilities for so long that I’m comfortable with them. Not so the vulnerabilities that exist with putting all my documents on the Internet. After all, if my laptop can crash, can’t “their” servers? And, let’s face it: you are using someone’s hardware to work in the cloud, even if it isn’t yours.

    The benefits are great and the move is inevitable. I commend you for jumping into the cloud and leaving the weight of the “hardware” world behind.

    • > After all, if my laptop can crash, can’t “their” servers?
      Less likely, because many of these services (especially the better-known among them, like Google and Microsoft) use multiple servers that each contain copies (“mirrors”) of your data. If one crashes, another one automatically takes over (this is called “failover”) and you continue using data while, ideally, never knowing anything happened.

  19. These lyrics from the Rolling Stones may be apposite to this post. Were Mick and Co prescient?

    I said, Hey! You! Get off of my cloud
    Hey! You! Get off of my cloud
    Hey! You! Get off of my cloud
    Don’t hang around ’cause two’s a crowd
    On my cloud, baby

  20. FYI, I now have my Mac Book Pro back. After, ahem, two and a half weeks. And now I come across things such as Google Chrome OS, which is just the sort of evolution I was talking about here:

    • The whole thing reads like a great adventure and streamlining of our lives. But that is how all advances in computerisation appear at first. In the end each computer advance leads to frustration and the dedication of our lives to the ending of those frustrations. I am not confident that this latest will be any different. It is a descending spiral.

      If we are all in a cloud, where will conscience reside? We see often that it retreats to a few isolated individuals. Will mankind grow or be limited by the commonality of pursuits? Whenever we use a computer programme, we are required to think in the way someone else requires us to think. It may not be particularly evident now, but will this percolate through into all our thinking?

      Yes, all this innovation is hugely seductive. But I feel safer, somehow, with pencil and paper and cupboards of mouldering books. I am not sure they achieve anything less, certainly in quality.

      Perhaps we should beware of slowing our minds to the pace of a computer.

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