Head In The Clouds

13 01 2010

It’s always fun to watch old movies that have some element of computing in them, like War Games. In that epic Broderick/Sheedy film, there is a now-ancient IMSAI 8080 computer that used enormous 8″ floppy disks. And those massive floppies could hold fraction of a grain of rice compared to today’s terabyte external hard drives.

But regardless of storage capacity, all through this time we have grown accustomed to the idea of toting our data (i.e., documents, images, etc.) with us on some form of storage media. In recent years, though, an alternative has emerged that unshackles the ball and chain from our ankle, and lets us compute freely.

And that alternative is cloud computing, of course. While a there is a growing number of both free and fee-based providers of these virtual data storage barns, the best-known of these is Google Docs, offering not just a place to store and share Word docs, spreadsheets and PowerPoints, but also the ability to create and modify them without ever having to actually own the expensive Microsoft software.

And now Google has raised the bar by announcing that Google Docs will be renamed Google Any File, thereby removing the file-type limitations of Docs and thus allowing users to store just about anything in the cloud.

Except for your dust-collecting sports equipment, perhaps.

Google’s move signals a shift in the way of thinking about cloud computing. It’s more than just storing frequently-used documents in a common place; no, now it’s simply about storing anything and everything.

And for free, of course.

The notion of storing things in a completely intangible format is still a little unsettling for many people, who fear server crashes and hackers, and who still need to feel something. As if being able to fondle a hard drive is going to make those files any safer.

It also reveals just how intense the battle for cloud computing dominance is becoming. Worse yet, there’s hardly a nickel to be made in data storage, since it is so cheap and abundant. And for that matter, even software is becoming worthless. Chris Anderson, Editor of Wired Magazine and author of Free, pretty much predicts this de-pricing of certain apps. Fortunately for Google, they are really not a search engine or data storage company; no, they are an advertising company.

And I’m sure they will mine all manner of interesting little personal facts about me as I push my files their way. It’ll all come back to haunt me in well-targeted advertising in future search queries and emails, as well as ads that will probably start to appear very soon in the Any File workspace.

As for me, I don’t mind it a bit. I have been working in the clouds for several years now. Before I travel, I always upload my various projects to Google Docs so that I can access them from anywhere regardless of which laptop I am lugging around. I can leave flash drives and other such storage media at home, lightening my loud both literally and metaphorically. And as long as Google continues to give everything away, they will continue to get the lion’s share of the users.

One need not look far to find dozens of clouds prospering, and, to be honest, embraced by users in spite of their often vocal resistance. For example, the dozens of photo storage and sharing sites like Flickr are nothing but big image clouds. And my new favorite LaLa allows me to mirror my iTunes library in the cloud, allowing me to access it from anywhere. (Last December, I was in charge of music at the College of Business’ holiday party. I created a rocking holiday playlist on iTunes and Lala, which I accessed on my laptop via university wifi, and then pumped it through a PA system. Voila!)

So if this means we need not carry data around with us, it also means we need not tote 8-pound laptops, either, as evidenced by the proliferation of tiny netbooks that pretty much good at just one thing: accessing the web.

Sure beats trying to compute on the beast that the IMSAI was. Even if Matthew Broderick was in the enviable position of playing opposite Ally Sheedy. Just sayin’.

Dr “Shall We Play A Game?” Gerlich




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