Charles Basenga Kiyanda

The Cloud and the Dreamer

People have lately been talking about “computing in the cloud”. I hate that sentence. Nonetheless, what I’m guessing they’re referring to is “using the internet as an infrastructure design component in computing systems”. I’m not happy with that either. For one, as a scientist, the word “computing” has a rather precise definition which can’t be equated with facebook and flickr. Alas, let us forget my petty scientific objections and look at the idea itself.

“Computing in the cloud” seems to refer to a number of different concepts most of which would appear to “blend the desktop with the internet”. Essentially, when you would be working on your computer (referred to as the desktop), you would really also be working on the internet. Instead of “computing in the cloud”, you may have heard “software as a service”. In this case, you wouldn’t install applications on your desktop. Rather, you would log on to a website, which offers one or more “software”. You never own the software, you never install it, you upload your data to their servers and do your modifications there.

Adobe has talked about “software as a service” for photoshop, for example.

There have also been recent news reports (see here and here for examples) of microsoft coming out with “Windows Live Mesh”. If I understand anything of the press releases, the service would essentially link your desktop to servers accessible over the internet, so that your “desktop” is shared across the web and when you modify a file at work, you also modify it at home. Magically. It appears you could also elect to share parts of your desktop in “social networking” of some sort.

I see two main problems with these ideas, however neat they may be. One is monetization and the other is  ownership.

First, on the topic of monetization. I’m not going to say that it will be impossible for to monetize these services. Quite the contrary. I think it will be too easy to monetize these services! It appears to me that the big software companies now want to monetize their software more. Now that most of the people who use a computer know how to get pirated software, I’m guessing we’re either hitting a monetization barrier for the old system or a decrease in monetization possibilities. Essentially, I’m saying that everyone who’s going to buy software already does and the remainder of the market will not pay for your software no matter what. (Or at least, the coming of that day is dreaded.) Hence, you need to find a better way to monetize that segment of the market. What better way then to never actually sell you the software! All we do is sell you the capabilities of the software as an online service. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, were it not for the track record of some of the big guys in the field.

There was a recent announcement from Microsoft (again), saying they will discontinue their “Plays-for-sure” servers on september 1st 2008. The ironically named “plays-for-sure” format was meant to license music to people. You could buy music from microsoft and you had to get a license for every machine you wanted to get it to play on. When the servers go down, you’ll no longer be able to get new licenses and you’ll be stuck playing these files on whatever hardware you have a license for already. (Unless you just go the illegal way and rip the music to another format.)

In the light of the above example (and I’m sure there are others), one can’t help but feeling trapped by the company. Here I am, paying for my online photoshop service and, one day, they decide that stitiching panoramas is too load intensive, so we’ll charge more for it. Hold on. I stitch panoramas all the time! That’s why I pay for the photoshop service in the first place! Or how about microsoft deciding one day that its “live mesh” isn’t profitable enough changes model and just shuts down its servers. I’m planning a 4 month trip around the world soon, do I really want to be in Asia with possibly no access to important data when this happens?

Another problem is that of ownership. It’s quite evident that some segments of the population will never trust other people with their data. I work for a US National Lab and based on the corporate culture here and the type of work we do, I get the distinct feeling we will NEVER be allowed to edit a report on an online version of word. No matter how cool this idea may sound to management and IT. (Think no software updates, ever. Wouldn’t the IT folks be happy about that one!) But aside from government agencies, I can see other people who would feel uneasy about such an arrangement. For example, I make these huge panoramas. (I’ve printed a 48″ long image once and that wasn’t the full resolution, just as large as I could print it.) I’m not making money on these panoramas (although my mom loves them), but I could plan to one day. I don’t really trust online services with my high-resolution originals. I have friends who are actual (paid and professional) photographers. I don’t see them liking such all-encompassing online services so much. To be fair, they have advantages. They could go on assignment in the Sahara with a tiny machine, put the memory stick in there and, voilà, it’s shared with the editor’s desk in Montreal. But does this convenience outweigh the risks? I don’t trust microsoft to never have a glitch and get hacked. Even Google, who so far benefits from still looking largely like the good guy around the block, has seen exploits of the gmail service. There are some things for which I don’t really want to trust a large company like microsoft. Have you ever tried to call microsoft customer service when hotmail failed to work? That’s right. You just said “oh well, it will start again soon.” Now imagine that everything you do on your computer depends on microsoft. I’m not sure I want to go there.

Being a free software advocate and linux fan and user myself, I’m actually not that scared about the possibility of software as a service and “desktop in the cloud” ideas. I have recently convinced a fervent microsoft user and lover friend of mine to use a piece of free software, The Gimp. This friend’s computer was reformatted last week (too many viruses) and I tried to suggest we install linux on a small partition so he can try it out, just to see. You should have seen his reaction. I thought I had sprayed a witch with holy water. You can imagine why it was a big thing to get him to use The Gimp. The Gimp is a free software alternative to Adobe Photoshop. It’s not quite as powerful as Photoshop (currently it only works in 8 bit spaces if you really want to know, feel free to ignore), but for many, many, many people, I’m sure that would suffice. As it turns out, there’s a whole segment of the population who steals software. (Shocking!) When stealing commercial software will not be an option anymore (or not a practical one), a portion of that segment will be convertible to free software alternatives. More users, more testing, more developement, better free software… You get the picture…

Microsoft has recently said they’re thinking of “leasing” as a “service” more parts of windows. Parts you already use. This is probably great news for linux. One of the main barriers to the adoption of linux by normal people and not just the über-geeks is the fact that windows is preinstalled on every…single…pc…you…buy. Every single one of them. People often complain installing linux is hard, people don’t know how to format drives. Guess what? Installing windows is hard too, you just never do it. On top of it, the price of microsoft windows is pretty much always included in the price of the computer. Essentially, it’s perceived as free, when, really, it isn’t completely free. When people start having to pay to convert a jpg to a gif, the cost of windows will become more apparent. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) alternatives will become more appealing. Essentially, annoyance has a price. The current perceived spending is zero. When the current perceived spending rises, a certain level of annoying will be considered. Annoyances such as “learning the difference between the odt and doc formats”, “learning how to install packages in linux rather than running executables in windows”, etc.

So I dream of the day (there’s my link to my title) the common man will consider foss software as an alternative. To be honest, I don’t think all software will eventually be free. Mass consumption software, I could see. Stuff like The Gimp and Firefox. Specialty software that only a small portion of the society uses may well be software you have to buy for a long, long time. I also dream of the day people realize that and start supporting linux when they sell software.

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