On The Cloud

Dec 18, 2011 | 4 minutes read

Tags: blog

Cloud technology is a much-hyped technology. The Cloud transcended it’s blue-chip origins in the world of corporate applications and backup solutions, permeating into the world of the consumer.

The technological ecosystem that the cloud promises will offer the next evolutionary leap in the world of computing, and it’s something I’m privileged to be a part of envisaging.
But the technology is in it’s infancy, and some issues exist both in the form of technological barriers and misguided implementations. These must first be overcome before the adoption of the cloud fulfills the lofty goals it’s evangelists promise.

The concept of the cloud is often misunderstood, but remarkably simple: a low-powered device connects to a distributed, remote, highly powerful backend which picks up the grunt of persistance and processing.

Along with the cloud revolution come a whole host of first generation devices trying to adopt the vision. What follows is an examination of the offerings of two major manufacturers with very different perspectives.

First, there’s the Google Chromebook. Google truly get the concept – with it’s integrated 3G modem, the device is intended to be always connected, and as technology develops this is becoming an achievable goal. The device has limited storage, and instead encourages users to  compose documents in Google Docs and write code on a web-based IDE like Cloud 9. Persistance is in the cloud. If I run out of battery, spill a coffee all over the device, or the device gets stolen, what’s the matter? It’s in the cloud. They get it.The execution, however, is a whole different story. The entire user interface is centered around a web browser. Think having a Google Chrome window, and nothing else. That’s essentially it, and it doesn’t work. Multi-tasking never truly feels like multi-tasking, as it’s just a list of browser tabs. It feels unintuitive and unproductive. This isn’t the answer, and an OS in a browser is a backward devolutionary step.

Apple’s equivalent answer is the Macbook Air. The device is a beautiful paper thin piece of brushed aluminium, which still manages to be lightning fast. The UI is stunning – and why wouldn’t it be, it’s the same tried and tested OS that’s been running on it’s bigger brother Macs with years. It’s an incredibly usable, productive environment.
But it’s not cloud.  The Air doesn’t fare so well in the doomsday scenario presented with the Chromebook. The Air isn’t architected to be a cloud connected device – it’s an ultra-portable with an optional add-on cloud offering, Apple’s iCloud. While this enabled some degree of cloud connectivity, the offering is segmented and not all encompassing. You can store your iWork documents in the cloud, but nothing from the more popular Office for Mac suite. 

Complimenting the Macbook Air is the iPhone and iPad. With the release of iOS5, devices can backup their content wirelessly to the cloud, access music through the cloud and sync contacts and mail, completely untethered from a computer. Having no direct access to the file system forces the user to think cloud-based storage – apps can integrate with cloud based services like Dropbox or iCloud, but not a truly on-device filesystem.

The same doesn’t apply to photos though – to access my photo stream, I have to use iPhoto, a clunky desktop image library. No access to the stream is available through the web – painful. 

The solution doesn’t feel all-encompassing – it’s segmented. Why can I get at my contacts and calendar through the web, but not my photos? Why does iCloud work so well with Apple’s own iWork suite, but does so little with anything else on my filesystem?

Potentially, this is a restriction that is intrinsic to Apple’s walled garden approach. Maybe Apple aren’t going to win this one?

So what does the future hold for the cloud?
At Feedhenry, we’re busy filling the gap for mobile by creating a cloud layer where devices can communicate and share data whatever the platform. But what does the future hold for the desktop?
In a lofty moment of idealism, I’d like to envision an open cloud future – one where platform doesn’t matter. Fanatic fanboyism becomes a thing of the past. The walled garden remains, but with a RESTful JSON API to boot.
My Mac workstation talks to my portable Chromebook using a cloud that can then sync data to all my mobile devices.

The potential is endless, but we’re limited by 3/4G signal coverage, extortionate roaming rates and the availability of truly fast broadband. As we look toward 2012, I hope that the industry as a whole can put aside petty platform battles. Instead, as we enter into this second generation of cloud connected devices, it’s time to develop a truly interconnected offering for consumers everywhere.