since google’s big chromeOS unveiling last week, i’ve been left thinking a lot about cloud computing and chrome as an operating system in particular. while i failed to be enamored about chromeOS, i do think the concept of cloud computing is an exciting developing technology. chromeOS felt half-assed and not-fully-developed (the latter of which, at least, was true). and it’s banking on a technology that is not yet widely adopted for which there aren’t a lot of equivalent technologies to what we are used to on our desktops and standard laptops.
the idea behind cloud computing (and the concept that chromeOS is founded on) is that most of what we do these days is done online, and that our most used applications are things that really just interface with the net. even things that we think of as applications that run locally of our computer — like word processing or spreadsheets — can be taken to the cloud with microsoft’s new Office Live which was introduced to rival google’s own, longstanding Google Apps. the few things you sacrifice by using a more simplistic user interface with less options (theoretically the stuff you don’t use anyway), you make up for in having permanent, secure, online data storage that follows you wherever you go, no matter what computer you’re on. it doesn’t matter if your computer crashes, or your whole office crashes — if all your documents are online in Office Live or Google Apps, they’re safely tucked away in microsoft’s or google’s data warehouses. and the chances of google’s or microsoft’s servers going down are about as high as snowflakes in the mojave desert in august. nvidia’s RealityServer and the independent OnLive show us ways that gaming can be taken to the cloud — and that is a glorious thing. imagine not ever having to buy a graphics card ever again, and yet, still be able to play the hottest new games available at breathtaking resolutions that would have you staring at your screen in awe. by taking all the heavy duty graphics and physics processing off your computer and crunching the numbers on a vast server cluster, the only thing you’d need is a fast enough internet connection to stream the audio and video.
it’s true, it’s beautiful up in the cloud. the heavenly connotations are not entirely unwarranted when given access to unlimited data storage, unlimited processing power, unlimited games, unlimited music, everything you do and say and think lives in the cloud, you just need a conduit to tap into it. all this constant upgrading your computer to the latest fancy technology to make it go faster is unnecessary. you can access the cloud on the laptop you threw in the closet 7 years ago and forgot about. but wait…what about everything we’ve ever known about computing technology? about how processors are constantly getting faster, data storage is getting bigger and faster and cheaper. if you can access the cloud with any old thing, namely, if you can access the cloud with a chromeOS-powered netbook that does nothing else other than access the cloud, wouldn’t that sort of put a wrench in how hardware is developed, and do we even want that? because with cloud computing, nothing is local, all (or most) of the processing is done in the cloud. at least, that was what google was presenting a few days ago. you don’t need a fast computer, you just need something that can run their software. (and google kind of has the corner on that market: one of the things they announced was that you would be running chromeOS on a specially-designed hardware device built to run chromeOS.)
this is where i get stuck. it doesn’t make sense to me: why use a netbook to access stuff that only lives on the internet if it can’t do some of the things i can do on a regular computer? okay, so it’s only task is to access and manipulate apps that live online, but so does a smartphone. a netbook is, pretty much by definition, either a bloated smartphone that can’t make calls, or a dumbed-down computer with limited (or no) local storage. this is the future of computing? really?
the cloud also throws a wrench into our concept of ownership. i mean, sure, i can say that i own all my documents on Google Docs, but what does that actually mean to me if i don’t actually have a file i can manipulate myself. or, more to the point, what happens to the music collection i consider to be mine if it’s not actually stored on any hard drive i have physical access or proximity to, but rather, is part of a membership service i am subscribed to? we saw this summer how easy it was to take away digital possessions thought to be the property of the purchasers when amazon pulled 1984 and animal farm off their (digital) Kindle shelves and, subsequently, out of the Kindle users’ collections.
the cloud is great at some things, but not so much at others. netbooks are a hot, cheap solution to do some basic daily tasks, but they will never be able to do everything you can do on a regular computer. rather than forcing users to settle on a good enough, cloud equivalent for what they want to do, let’s embrace the differences between netbook computing and desktop (or laptop) computing. what i’m thinking is web apps that behave more like desktop apps and desktop apps that behave more like web apps. so much so that the only distinction between the two is whether an app is web-exclusive and therefore can be run on a netbook with no local storage. as an example, let’s say i’m using something like a video editing program that eats up a lot of memory, disk space, and cpu cycles. rather than having to go out and buy a supercomputer that can handle the load, let’s offload some of the memory consumption, processing, and temporary data storage to the cloud. the app still lives on my computer, i still have to go to the store and make the purchase (or download it online and install it on my computer), but it leverages the cloud to enhance the user experience. my video editing app can use a server cluster in mountain view to handle the video rendering so that task can take minutes, or even seconds, rather than the hours it would take me to render the same video on my computer. then i’m limited only by my bandwidth, which is pretty much universally accepted as necessary to make cloud computing — and the environment in which chromeOS can truly live — a reality.
granted, google told us that this was not a release, not a true unveiling. merely, it was a chance to look at what the operating system does and how it’s different than what we’re used to now. but, if you’ve read the chrome browser propaganda, none of this is really new territory other than the fact that, in the future, there will be chrome devices that only run chrome. with chromeOS, google is banking on a technology whose time hasn’t yet come, and it’s a hefty gamble. and are google’s intentions purely benevolent? if google is working towards bringing about a world in which computing is done entirely (or at least mostly) online, gee, doesn’t that mean there will be more opportunities for their text ads to appear while we go about our normal workday? is this really anything other than a cheap ploy to plaster more google ads across more things you do, by bringing the things you do online?
when applications can intelligently use the cloud to boost performance and take the load off of the local host computer — as i see it, the best of both worlds — then i will be a true believer. until then, google’s cloud lives in that same utopian dream that the Agents in The Matrix told us failed the first time they built the Matrix. we kept trying to wake up.