May 5, 2010

Let Me Tell Ye: Cloud Computing

I call this: computers,phones,tech — Posted by KP @ 5:17 pm

Today’s Let Me Tell Ye comes about after I read this article at TUAW. If you don’t want to click the link, I will tell you it’s called “Can Cloud Computing Replace the Finder?”

Cloud Computing: n The idea of having all data stored on remote servers so mobile and desktop devices have no need for local storage.

the Finder: n stupid name for the thing that looks at files in Mac OS. For Windows users, it’s basically the same thing as Explorer. Not Internet Explorer, which is something totally different, and come to think of it, that right there makes Explorer a stupider name than Finder. It does not, however, make the Finder icon any less stupid.

Now that we’re all caught up, let me tell ye what I think about cloud computing.

Good Clouds

Not all cloud computing is bad. Some of it is really awesome. The fact that I can read an email on my laptop, respond to it later from my phone, and if for some reason I was actually separated from both my laptop and phone, I could then access all my email from any other computer, is pretty cool.

I love the way my iPhone works with MobileMe (and also Google Apps). If I change a calendar appointment, or add a contact to my address book, within a minute or so, it will sync to my phone without me even having to turn it on. The next time I look, it will just be there. The same is true of some third-party apps like OmniFocus for my tasks, which currently requires a little more user interaction because of the lack of multitasking, but the idea is the same: what is done on one device can be accessed by any device. My bookmarks automatically sync between my main computer, my phone, and even (gasp!) my PC, without me having to do a thing.

I have also used Google Docs pretty extensively — not so much for work, but for side projects requiring a lot of collaboration — and there is a definite advantage to having a single copy of a document accessible to all people who need them, from any computer.

Bad Clouds

Where cloud computing gets scary is when people start talking about the fact that someday we won’t need to store anything on our computers — even our applications will be on the cloud.

My main concern with this prospect is that if there’s one thing I know, it’s that internet access is not ubiquitous. I think the people who talk about things like cloud computing use their computers at home, at a civilized office, and use their smartphone in an area with data coverage. But life is not always like that. Yes, sometimes even on Verizon.

As much as I try to avoid the situation, there are lots of places where professional theatre is rehearsed and performed where internet access is not available. By that I mean wifi, ethernet, things that connect to computers and handle large amounts of data. There are also many such places which are deep in basements, or buildings with very thick walls (remember, theatres have no windows), and are completely cut off from cell phone service. Yes, even to people with Verizon. So even if you could tether through your cell phone or had an aircard to plug into your laptop, you’d be out of luck.

I travel with a router and a phone that can tether, but sometimes even my preparedness leaves me stumped when faced with a particularly technologically-bereft facility (or one controlled by some draconian IT department that makes it impossible for anyone outside their organization to get online).

So OK, you go outside. Which, by the way, is not OK. I’m working at my desk eight hours a day, I need internet access at my desk. But even if you do go outside… I present downtown Fargo, ND. As well as the outskirts of Ottumwa, IA. And a bunch of places on highways in the middle of nowhere. Places where your phone will simply display “No Service.” Maybe not all of those on Verizon, but certainly there are some places where that would be true with any carrier. I also present most parts of the NYC subway.

I need the internet a lot as it is, but the idea that without internet access I wouldn’t be able to access any information at all would be a disaster. Everything I need to know in the world is in digital format. No way I would trust not having it on media that’s physically in my possession, and we’re a long way from being ready for 100% reliable internet access everywhere.

Also, as one commenter on TUAW points out, editing a 30GB video file remotely is completely impractical. So we would need ubiquitous internet, plus bandwidth as fast as the fastest processors. Not gonna happen.

The Email Argument

There are also the people who say, “but we already do this with email — my gmail is all on the cloud.” To them I say, let me tell ye: your gmail is all on the cloud. I, however, will not use webmail. I have an email client, and while it constantly syncs with my four primary IMAP accounts and occasionally with my catchall account for this site, I know that all of those emails are physically on my computer, for all those times I am offline. Also, I have every non-spam email I’ve ever sent or received, including attachments, since 2003 (some unfortunate data accident many years ago lost the rest). Do you store that on the Google cloud? Would anyone want to?

I keep a lot of emails on the cloud, because I may need to access them from anywhere. For instance, I just moved all my emails from the tour to my local archive folder (which contains subfolders sorted by year) when the tour ended last week. It was about 3,000 emails, sent and received over the last six months. I wasn’t taking a chance on needing access to one of them while the job was still going on, but I don’t need them cluttering up the folders that sync with the cloud after they have outlived their primary usefulness, and I’m sure you can tell I’m not throwing them out. Just a few days ago I pulled up an email from 2004 to find my account name and password for an online store I haven’t ordered from since then. It took about 5 seconds.

The Trust Factor

Some people like having their data on the cloud because they feel it’s less likely to get lost. Because a company like Google or Microsoft must be better at doing backups and stuff than little old me, right? Now to be fair I’ve lost things in my life (such as my emails prior to 2003, and inexplicably, a couple songs from iTunes that I didn’t notice were missing until after the six months that I had Time Machine backups for). And most of these backups are contained in one place, which is not particularly safe. I did try during the tour to back up my entire tour folder to my iDisk at least once a week, because I know I have been lax about offsite backup, but backing up the hundreds of GB of all my files to the cloud is just not practical now. Still, I know where my backups are, and I have access to them.

Consider the case of Microsoft’s Sidekick debacle last year, in which the T-Mobile device, which backs up only to the cloud, had a major server malfunction and erased everybody’s data, including that stored locally on their devices. Apparently on that device it was not even possible to plug it into your computer to back up your files. So while I don’t deny that the likes of Microsoft and Google have people with more IT knowledge than me working on my data, I’m not convinced that that means they will always take better care of it than I do.

But my biggest part of the trust factor with any cloud-type services (ebooks, streaming music accounts, games that have DRM requiring them to connect to the publisher’s server to play) is that I have many things in my short life that have outlived their creators. I have many games on CD-rom (and a couple on floppy) that were made by companies that no longer exist, and/or are no longer supported. Where possible, or with proper emulating software, I can still play them. I have word processor files (currently in .doc format) that I wrote going back to the early ’90s. Documents that were written on a 386. Now part of being able to do that is that you have to take the care to translate them to modern formats every five years or so, but I have control of those files and I can do that, even if everything that created them becomes obsolete.

So I don’t like the way things are going, especially in regards to DRM, that require the seller of the item to continually be part of my usage of it. 20 years from now when I take my Windows XP disk and find a way to install it on my toaster or something, it’s going to pop up with that “This copy of Windows is not activated, click here to activate” crap. Now I’m guessing in this example, Microsoft will still be in business, but whatever server that process needs to connect to will not be there, and I will be unable to use this otherwise perfectly good software that I paid hundreds of dollars for in 2002.

One of the first albums I owned was Thriller. I’ve had it since I was three years old. It’s right here:

It sounds pretty crappy, but with digital music we won’t have to worry so much about that. The point is, I can still play it — because I have it, and I have a walkman in my possession — and as long as that’s the case, and they still make AA batteries, I can listen to it forever. Music is not disposable, it doesn’t lose its value in a few years. Even the bad stuff gets more fun to listen to with age sometimes. The idea of replacing music that you own with streaming music or DRM content that requires there to be an iTunes to authenticate your music before you play it is not a good deal. So I have converted most of my purchased music to MP3 — not to share it, but to ensure that someday I can convert it to whatever format replaces MP3s, AACs, etc. so that I can listen to it for the rest of my life. And those files are on my computer, right under my right wrist, where I can keep an eye on them.


  1. The power of the cloud lies more in server technology now than with users. It allows websites to scale further and more quickly than a small company could do if they had to own physical servers they had to manage.

    As for the email – I have all my email since 2005 in my gmail. It’s around 20k messages now. Gmail has an imap interface so I could load it into a local client and have a offline copy if I wanted to. They also support gears (which doesn’t really work on new browsers since they stopped supporting it) for offline access through your browser. I’m sure the html5 version of offline access to gmail isn’t far off.

    I’ll agree with you on not liking DRM, but I’m all for “cloud computing.” I thought that I would always want local copies of my music, but turns out after using spotify, grooveshark and pandora, I haven’t played an mp3 file on my computer in months. Then again I’m not frequently not without internet access. I have found that I still prefer video offline rather than online. Probably related to limited bandwith and the still annoying limited availability of video online.

    I also signed up for dropbox to sync files between computers over a year ago and haven’t used a flash drive since. One of the powers of the cloud is this syncing between devices. Dropbox for example will let you get to your files from andriod, iphone, windows, linux, mac and anything else with a web browser. The files are all also local to the devices and will sync automatically between them all (with the exception of the iphone where you have to open the app for it to sync.) Evernote is another app that does something similar, though there’s no linux version which annoys me. The trend for services that put files in the cloud seems to be keeping local copies of things on all your devices and then using the could to sync between them and make sure that you can always get that file you want no matter where you are and what device you are on.

    Those are just some of my thoughts…


    KP Reply:

    Good post, Tom. I’m glad to hear that gmail holds up with that many messages on it. I suppose I could upload mine if I really wanted to make sure I would have access to everything from everywhere. I definitely have gotten more free with leaving older messages on the server until I’m pretty sure I won’t need them. Their imap is pretty flexible when you add the advanced features available in Labs, and I like the way it works. I’m just attached to having a local mail client, I guess. Mostly because my accounts are a mix of gmail, Google Apps and MobileMe, so on the client I can see them all together, and sort them regardless of origin.

    I did start using my iDisk basically the same way as a Dropbox to keep all the Word and Excel files with my tour schedules accessible from my phone and anywhere else. I tried using iDisk syncing probably five years ago and it didn’t work so well then, but now it works pretty much invisibly, and I think I’ll probably expand how many files I keep synced to the cloud. Maybe on my next show I’ll try the whole show folder. I just worry about sync errors deleting things.


    Comment by Tom Kiley — May 6, 2010 @ 10:23 pm

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