C7 The Cloud Computer


This chapter looks at a revolution that is happening in computing. It describes how software services are migrating from individual computers to servers located away from these computers. The collection of data and software that has migrated is known as the cloud. The logical endpoint of this is of a PC that has been stripped of most of its hardware including file storage with programs and data storage being hosted on the Internet. In the latter part of the next chapter I look at some of the writers on computing such as Jonathan Zittrain, Nicholas Carr and Tim Yu who warn about some of the problems, both those affecting the individual computer user and the IT company.

Chapter Links

  • This is a good introduction to cloud computing.
  • A Brief Guide to Cloud Computing is an excellent introduction to the topic. It can be found at Amazon here.
  • One of the main players in Cloud Computing is Google with its Google Apps offering. This is the web site for this. It’s free, but if you don’t have a domain name you have to purchase it. A useful subset of Google Apps is Google Docs which contains a word processor and other useful tools, although it is pretty basic you may find it a good alternative to other office systems..
  • An account of how the Netflix prize was won. Here is an article from Wired magazine that describes the prize and the efforts of a single contestant.
  • An account of the Goldcorp Prize competition. Whenever I read an account of the Goldcorp prize I am blown away by the bravery of Rob McEwen. A prize of $575,000 doesn’t seem much but exposing your crown jewels on the Internet could very easily have attracted a hostile bid for Goldcorp; this is one of the bravest business decisions I have come across in the last twenty years. Here’s a video of Rob McEwen, initially it describes the conditions that were extant in Goldcorp.
  • The USGS Twitter programme.
  • WikiWikiWeb is still on the web.
  • A biography of Ward Cunningham. I regard Mr Cunningham as a researcher even though he has had some industrial jobs and some research jobs. However, what distinguishes his career is the creation of new ideas and the development of the new. This does not just include WikiWikiWeb but also a number of major advances in an area of software development known as object-oriented programming.
  • The Amazon Associates program is one of the most successful-probably the most successful. The technical knowledge required to participate varies from relatively low-level, if you are just going to place links on your web site or blog, to sophisticated, if you are going to employ facilities such as those associated with retrieving information from the Amazon product database. Whatever facilities you offer your interaction with the API will either be indirect and require no programming or much more direct and would require some sophisticated coding knowledge. The description in the book is of a sophisticated French book site.
  • The comparison between the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia was controversial. This is an account of the process. This is an account of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s response.
  • Google Translate. If you have more than one language try out a translation. The number of languages processed is impressive. This is a recent article describing the system.
  • The book Planet Google can be found at Amazon here.
  • This is how Google use prediction markets to determine some of their policies.
  • The OpenWetWare site.
  • The Superfreaknomics book can be found at Amazon here.
  • An example of a prediction market.

Blog posts

The Chromebook

In 2011 Samsung released an innovative computer known as a Chromebook. It implements a number of the ideas that I talk about in Chapter 7, the chapter that describes cloud computing. The Chromebook is a computer that is similar to the early netbooks in that it has a solid state memory with the storage of documents being mainly held in the cloud. The user interface is through the Chrome browser rather through an operating system such as Windows .  This is the first computer that directly implements the cloud technologies that are becoming so important.  Here’s the Amazon page that describes the hardware (many of the purchasers seem very enthusiastic). I’m not predicting a future for such products yet. However, if we see major increases in broadband speed over the next five years I suspect that such a computer will become close to the norm.  It certainly is light, has few security problems and boots up quickly.

The TV in the Cloud

I received an email last week from a company I buy my electrical goods from. It advertised a Sony TV, the Sony KDL32CX520. At first site this television seemed just like other digital televisions that I had come across. However, in the small print there was something that I had not thought about before: it was Internet-ready with a web browser, some apps and access to the excellent BBC iPlayer; moreover the advert also featured other TVs that were Internet ready.  Previously I thought that all the movement towards cloud computing would come through computer devices such as the Chromebook and tablet computers. TVs like the Sony KDL32CX520 are coming from another direction.

Perhaps We Only Need Five Computers

In the very early days of computing there were a number of predictions about how many computers the world needed. The predictions ranged from 5 to 20. Clearly these were a little out, here’s an actual estimate. However, Nicholas Carr has pointed out that some of these predictions may be true (in a sense). Chapter 7 of the book describes the cloud computing concept where many computers combine together in order to function as a single computer using the Internet as a communication medium.  What Carr points out is that there may only be five in the future, each run by a corporation, government or some other organisation. This chimes in with the vision that Jonathan Zittrain has in his book The Future of the Internet and Tim Wu’s book The Master Switch.

The Instantaneous Amazon Review

In Chapter 7, a chapter that describes the cloud computing concept, I described how work carried out by Ward Cunningham revolutionised the way that we interacted with each other using the Internet. In the text I described an innovation in feedback where, in the early days, Amazon took reviews of books and then published them after they were examined by an editor for adherence to Amazon’s ground rules, for example those forbidding profanity. Here there was a time delay; this, I suspect, was partly due to the examination of the posts and partly for technical reasons as the concept of a wiki was not around then.

I wrote a review of a book yesterday that I particularly liked and, to my surprise, it appeared almost instantaneously.  I’m still wondering what is happening here. I suspect that a combination of wiki-type technologies and text processing technologies are being used, where text processing program code is being used to monitor a review; if it passes the Amazon code it is published: if it doesn’t pass muster then it is intercepted by an editor who examines it and either passes it or rejects it.

Android Phone Sales Up – The Implications

I came across this fascinating article by Charles Arthur today. It describes a recent survey that shows that Android smartphone sales are booming in the UK. It shows a rapid increase in Android sales, a slower increase in Blackberry sales and a marked decrease in iPhone sales (Disclosure: I own an Android phone, an IPad 1 and a Motorola Xoom). As I have pointed out in a previous blog such figures are not only significant for the mobile phone industry, but have a knock-on effect in terms of tablets that are based on the operating system used in the phone, for example the iPad based on the iPhone iOS system and tablets such as the Motorola Xoom based on the Android system.  What is also interesting is that many of the comments below the article are very informed and some impinge on the issues of closed and open systems that I mention in connection with the writings of Jonathan Zittrain. I suspect that it will be a critical two years for Apple following Steve Jobs’ death and publication of figures such as this.

Disruption at Netflix

I mentioned Netflix in the book as an example of a company that opened up some of its data to the outside world in order to improve the way that it recommends films to its customers. Recently it made a decision that shows the power that the computer has to disrupt.  Netflix’s business has been associated with DVD rentals for some time; however, the fact that Internet speeds are increasing has meant that it has increasingly offered streaming services.  This year they decided to split the businesses.  A decision that they later reversed. I was surprised by this in that I would have thought the best way to organise the transition from being a metal disk renting company to a streaming company would be to have a common entry point with offers and branch points for dedicated DVD customers to sample and, perhaps, be hooked on streaming.  Here’s an example of disruption being handled by a succesful company that is in the eye of the storm.

The Next Home Computer?

I know it’s foolish to predict the future but very occasionally I try to. My desktop computer is becoming aged and I am starting to think about its replacement.  I came across this Asus EeePad computer. It is a sort of hybrid netbook/tablet computer which can be augmented with a keyboard and a docking station. The computer runs the Android operating system and, I believe, can have a mouse attached to it.  Here’s a review.

If you are the sort of user who: browses the Internet, uses social computing sites, sends and receives emails and have relatively low level word processing and spread-sheet requirements then I suspect that this computer and any similar future computers will replace the big box under your feet.  It is also based on the cloud concept. It could even replace the conventional laptop since it is quite light and has a screen-based keyboard. (Disclosure: I have no connections at all any company that manufactures or sells this computer).

Update 3rd Nov 2011: this computer was awarded product of the year by a leading gadget magazine.

Privacy and Loyalty Cards

I am very relaxed about loyalty card, apart from those where my health details are stored, for example when I purchase over-the-counter medicines at a pharmacy chain. Here, however, is a different view. It also takes a viewpoint about RFID tags. My book has, of necessity, been short and I would have liked it to cover more on privacy. The link above provides some supplementary material.

What Does Major Increases in Broadband Speed Mean?

Yesterday British Telecom (BT) announced that it was accelerating the timetable for delivering increased broadband speeds, promising up to 100 Megabits/second. My current broadband connection delivers between 1.5 to 3 Megabits/second as the house I live in is quite a distance from the nearest exchange. For me this speed is fine: all I do is surf the web and process emails.  However, it lead me to thinking what would be the effect of such speeds.

First, I am sure that it would accelerate cloud access; for example if the response time of a word processor hosted on the Internet is the same as for a word processor situated on a home computer then, provided costs are lower, there would be no competition.  Currently cloud office systems lag somewhat behind the heavy duty package Microsoft Office in terms of functionality; however, with Office 365 entering the fray this year we might see the end of home installed office software as increased broadband speeds kick in.

The second effect will be on home entertainment.  Already BT is using the Internet to stream television with its Vision programme. Netflix is looking to enter the British market soon.  The speeds quoted by BT  enable high definition streaming. If I was a conventional provider of television and film feeds, for example Sky, I would be looking very hard at what this announcement from BT means.

Another home entertainment effect is associated with music. About a year ago I stored all my CDs on a computer drive. I now listen to them on a fine pair of Bose speakers attached to my laptop when I work in my study and via my iPod connected to an amplifier in my living room.  I really thought that I was being state-of-the-art. That is until I saw some stuff on Amazon’s Cloud Drive. Here you store your files in the cloud and use an application called the Amazon Cloud Player to play the music. This is the music analogue of the move towards the office in the cloud. With increased broadband speeds there will be little incentive to store MP3s locally. There may even be models of access that enable the user to rent MP3s for a short period.

One possible future is that with a much greater use of bandwidth there may come a pressure to charge users on volume use just like any other utility. I currently use a broadband plan that gives me unlimited download volumes. I just wonder whether the logic of computer power as a utility will mean that charging will follow the electricity and gas models of charging and this plan will become a fond memory.

Here is an interesting article on the increasing use we make of the broadband in terms of download volume.

Google Apps – A Recent Report

There was a recent report released by Gartner, an American research organisation, that pointed out that Google’s App offerings, primarily Gmail, were becoming closer and closer to adoption by at least small companies. In Chapter 7 I make the point that Google Apps is still a bit basic compared with Microsoft’s Office product. However, the Gartner report implies that, in industrial terms and, as a consequence in home computing terms, that Google Apps and the subset known as Google Docs are becoming more and more powerful. A number of my posts have talked about the commercial rivalry between Google and Apple over the Android operating system. This is another  struggle which should play out over the next five years. Here’s a link to an article discussing the Gartner report, here’s another. In the articles you will see the term ‘enterprise’ occurring a number of times. This is IT-speak for commercial organisation.

Disclosure: I use Microsoft Office for my word-processing and presentation requirements, Google Gmail for email and Google Calendar for my diary.

Music in the Clouds

In this chapter I describe cloud computing, mainly in the context of commercial applications. Here’s an example of something distinct from this and aimed at the consumer. Apple has just announced its Music in the Clouds extension iTunes Match that allows non iTunes music to be accessed by Apple users. The base technology that supports this is iCloud which was announced in mid 2011. Every time I see an article about increasing broadband speeds and articles such as this I get more and more confident about how the cloud will dominate computing in the future.

French Company Bans Emails

Here’s an article from Forbes about how one company is dealing with the problem of emails. What is interesting about the article is the remark that the young are abandoning email for social media messaging. One of the advantages of messaging is that it forces you to be succinct so perhaps we are seeing an unexpected fall-out from sites such as Facebook and Twitter with the end of the interminable email.


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