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Cloud Computing and the Consumer

'neb·u·lous' - adjective - cloudy or cloudlike - (opens in new tab)

'Lick' has a lot to answer for. In 1963 Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider (opens in new tab), 'Lick' to his friends, wrote a memo to his colleagues entitled 'Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network'. It began apologising for his postponement of a meeting, but by the end he had laid the groundwork for a term which still baffles consumers nearly 50 years later. Lick stressed the importance in computers developing "a capability for integrated network operation... such a network as I envisage nebulously".

The phrase 'Cloud Computing' was born. It probably wasn't the best description, Licklider admitted in the same memo "as you may have detected... I am at a loss for a name", but the analogy stuck. Today Gartner predicts (opens in new tab) the Cloud Computing Market will be worth $150 billion by 2013 and that by 2014 60 per cent of server workloads will be spent processing Cloud data. It cannot be stopped and it should not be stopped. It already dominates consumers' lives and, as one report observed (opens in new tab), this year's CES (the world's largest consumer tech event) "should have been called the Cloud Electronics Show".

What is Cloud Computing?

So what on earth is it? The simplest definition of Cloud Computing is the delivery of computing as a service rather than a product, where the service is provided over a network (typically the Internet). Pure Cloud Computing includes web email such as Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo email; social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and 'streaming' Internet entertainment services like Spotify, Netflix and BBC iPlayer. A great deal of productivity software lives "in the Cloud" as well such as Google Docs and Microsoft's Office 365. Modern file synchronisation and backup services are all 'Cloud-based' too including Apple iCloud, Dropbox and Microsoft SkyDrive.

It isn't technically correct, but an easy rule of thumb is to substitute 'Cloud' for 'Internet'. Yes it really isn't all that difficult, but despite continual media hype, most consumers have no idea what Cloud Computing is or how it works. In August last year the NPD Group announced research (opens in new tab) which claimed just 22 per cent of consumers were familiar with the term, though 76 per cent of respondents reported using some type of Cloud-based service in the past 12 months.

"Whether they understand the terminology or not, consumers are actually pretty savvy in their use of cloud-based applications," concluded Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for NPD. "They might not always recognize they are performing activities in the cloud, yet they still rely on and use those services extensively."

Little else matters. Henry Ford didn't care whether customers understood the inline four-cylinder monobloc flathead engine inside the Model T and he didn't require them to define precisely what an automobile was. Ford just wanted consumers to buy it and by doing so in their droves they created a new sector that took society to the next level. Cloud Computing is no different and the benefits to its widespread adoption are arguably even greater.

This is no tongue in cheek statement. Arguably the rise of the motorcar over public transport is why roads around the world grind to halt every day. By contrast Cloud Computing speeds our computers up, it also makes them more intuitive, accessible, secure, reliable and saves money. Let's break this down.

Primary Benefits

Speed: The increase in speed comes because programmes that were previously installed on your computer using up memory and occupying the processor are now offloaded. With Cloud Computing services are delivered via a web browser and the heavy lifting is done by the servers of the company providing the service with your computer simply viewing the fruits of their labour. This can bring ageing computers back to life.

Ease of use: Facebook gets a lot of abuse every time it updates its design, but it is a perfect example of a service simplified because of the Cloud. Should every user have to install Facebook on their computers they would have continual software updates to apply, patches to download and inevitable problems for users who failed to keep track of these releases. It may cause complaints, but the self maintenance of Facebook and every other Cloud Computing service saves major headaches.

Accessibility: If you had to install Facebook, Gmail or Twitter like traditional software then it would have to be done on every computer you owned. Instead the majority of Cloud Computing services only require a web browser, letting you log-in anywhere and pick up where you left off. There are some notably hybrid services like Spotify, which requires the installation of a desktop client, but all data and preferences remain in the Cloud making the hassle of software migration a thing of the past.

Security: Typically the primary reason for scepticism towards Cloud Computing is the fear of hackers breaking into online services and stealing your data or credit card information. Several high profile cases such as the attacks on the Sony PlayStation network (opens in new tab) feed this fear, but do the immense resources of these major companies tend to do a better job of protecting your data than the antivirus software on your computer? 99.9 times out of 100, yes.

Reliability: Computers crash, hardware fails, they get damaged and stolen. Without Cloud Computing that data is lost, with Cloud Computing your laptop can be frozen, set on fire, impaled or have a banana split spilt on it and you can just log into another computer and pick up where you left off... as Google is keen to demonstrate (opens in new tab). Manual backups can be made to external hard drives at home, but they must be connected, started and only save information up to the time of their last backup. What if your backup drive fails? For their part Cloud service providers backup your data across numerous servers in multiple locations adding a level of redundancy (opens in new tab) the home user could never match.

Cost: savings are already made through the aforementioned speed advantages, but the primary benefit of Cloud Computing is that hiring services is typically cheaper than being forced to buy programs outright. These services can also be adjusted or cancelled in the near future should they not suit your needs.


Of course cynics are everywhere. Despite the clear benefits, a survey from IDC just last month reports 46 per cent of respondents expressed that concerns over security are holding back their adoption of cloud computing. This despite finding "over 50% of respondents agree that use of cloud services would reduce the volume of data stored on laptops and other personal devices... and thereby reduce the potential for data loss."

This is a common contradiction and one of many. Privacy concerns are prominent despite the fact the passwords on our laptops are far outstripped by the encryption built into all major Cloud services. There is also the fear of acquisition or company failure, though as the closure of Picnik (opens in new tab) recently demonstrated, significant time is given to reclaim or transfer your data elsewhere.

What about the seemingly constant need for Internet access that renders Cloud Computing useless on the move? Advanced programming languages like HTML5 enable Cloud services to be cached for offline usage automatically. Meanwhile mobile Internet performance and coverage continues to increase as do data allowances while costs fall dramatically.

Green issues arise too over the expanse of server farms. Intel admits (opens in new tab) a new server is added for every 600 smartphones or 120 tablets and that data centres already consume over two per cent of electricity in the US. With Gartner predicting (opens in new tab) almost 120 million tablet sales in 2012 and Credit Suisse claiming (opens in new tab) smartphone sales will hit one billion devices in 2014 that's a lot of new servers. The flip side is many of these devices are purchased as replacements for existing products while technology advances are making server farms increasingly efficient. Meanwhile the growth in phone and tablet markets has been counterbalanced by a drop off in PC sales (opens in new tab).

Perhaps the greatest challenge therefore is in mindset. For thousands of years physical possession has been a bedrock of human comfort. The move to a digital world threatens on a material level as the early and intrinsic resistance in switching from CDs to MP3s demonstrated, even despite ownership being retained. Cloud Computing strips away that second pillar telling us it is better to loan than own. To accept this requires a level of trust that runs contrary to our primal survival instincts. Then again so does wearing earphones, going out at night, putting our money in a bank and millions of other activities that have subsequently enhanced our existence. Adapt.

The Future

To quote The Borg, 'resistance is futile'. To resist Cloud Computing is to resist the Internet and the two are inextricably linked. As such, rather than questioning whether take up will occur, the bigger question is the rate at which it will occur. When wrapped in an enticing package adopt rates are staggering. Facebook has grown from a glorified university year book to the defining social network of our generation acquiring over 845 million users in eight years, over a third of a 2.2 billion users believed to be online across the globe (opens in new tab).

There are warning signs. The trend to move everything online hit a speed bump with Google's Chrome OS, a 100 per cent Cloud-based operating system, whose radical reinvention of how we use computers has so far failed to catch on. IDC also "expects (opens in new tab) a merger and acquisition feeding frenzy" over the next few years as good ideas are pounced upon and the major players fight for dominance. The upheaval may scare some users away from committing their data to smaller companies.

Ultimately, however, the move to Cloud Computing for consumers will be a largely bloodless revolution. Much is made of the confusion surrounding the term itself, but this is a false distraction as many who question it do so while living lives already consumed by it.

"The interesting thing about cloud computing is that we've redefined cloud computing to include everything that we already do," said Oracle CEO Larry Ellison back in 2008 (opens in new tab). "I can't think of anything that isn't cloud computing," he argued.

You are already aboard... even if you don't know it yet.