The Promise of Cloud Computing

August 2008

By now, faithful readers, you know about my addiction. I need my Internet fix regularly — web and e-mail.

At home I cruise using my 24-inch iMac. On vacation I use my MacBook laptop. And when I’m away from either of those, I access the web and e-mail via my Palm Treo 750 from AT&T, which can access the Internet wherever I can get a cell phone signal.

So I ought to be in piggy heaven, right? Wrong. As great as this scenario sounds for an addict like me, there’s a central problem: I’ve got my stuff on three different computers.

Say that I receive some work-related e-mails while on vacation that I need to mark for followup when I get home. I’ve got to somehow figure out a way to integrate the vacation e-mail on my laptop with my e-mail at home.

Or say that I’m out and about and make a call on my cell phone. Typically if I call a number that’s not among my 1,381 contacts, my Treo asks me if I want to add it to my contacts. So I do. But now my list of contacts on my Treo is different from that on my computers. I can sync my Treo with each of my computers, but that’s a bit of a hassle.

Or maybe I enter a calendar appointment on my computer. I then need to sync my computer with my Treo so it’s up to date.

And finally, what if I’m away from all three of my computers and am using someone else’s? Wouldn’t it be nice to have all this information still be available to me?

This is the promise of cloud computing: your data — e-mail, contacts, calendar, and other specified files — are always available to you, always up to date, no matter what computer you’re using.

And it’s here. On June 9 Apple announced MobileMe. For $99 per year you have access to 20 GB of storage on MobileMe. It’s a simple way of keeping everything up to date. It automatically “pushes” any changes you make on one computer to your other computers or your iPhone or iPod Touch. And even if you’re not at your computers, you can go to any computer and access a web application that looks exactly like the mail, calendar, and contacts applications — and has everything there, all up to date. Plus, it all happens automatically.

It works with Outlook on a PC and the Mail, Contacts, and Calendar applications on a Mac. You can also use MobileMe to store and sync photos and other files, and to share your photos with others. And for additional amounts of money, you can get more storage space on MobileMe. Unfortunately, I use Microsoft’s software for e-mail, contacts, and calendar, so at this time MobileMe won’t meet my needs. Hopefully soon.

But what excites me is that the industry usually follows Apple. In the not-too-distant future cloud computing will be the norm.

So what exactly is cloud computing? It simply refers to accessing your data that is hosted by a third-party provider on a consolidated basis. It’s called a cloud because computer architecture diagrams typically represent your data as an amorphous cloud that hovers above and is connected to all your devices.

This is not to imply that Apple invented cloud computing. Microsoft, for example, has long offered Microsoft Exchange, which is common in corporate environments and typically lets you keep various computers and Windows Mobile phones in sync. MobileMe is like Exchange on steroids. And as always, Apple is taking a concept that’s already there and making it easy, elegant, and available to the masses.

Also, companies like Google are in a sense offering cloud computing via their web-based suites of applications. The downside is that if you rely completely on web-based applications for e-mail and other functions, they’re typically slower and less responsive than the software that resides on your computer. And if your Internet connection goes down, you don’t have access to your data or web apps.

Of course, a disadvantage of cloud computing is security. Your data is “out there” in addition to being on your computer. But today, all computers are connected together anyway, and we already trust web sites with our credit card number, so there’s really nothing new here.

Cloud computing is definitely the future. One company is even working on a free, web-based virtual computer, called Global Host Operating System (aka G.ho.st), that will reside in the cloud.

They certainly know how to keep us addicts hooked.

© 2008 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen