Monday, August 16, 2010

Cloud Computing: The Cloud Versus the Machine

Where should you keep your data, such as your email, documents, photos, and music? Where should you compose your email and work on your spreadsheets? Should you do it on your home computer or on a machine that belongs to Google, Microsoft or Yahoo? -- what's called "cloud computing"

There are good arguments in favor of each, but for many applications the cloud wins. When Microsoft Outlook or Word crashes on your personal computer or you're hit by a virus at 11pm, who are you going to call? If Gmail breaks (and even the omnipotent Google goes down every now and then), you can bet that there are 100 very smart people working to solve the problem.
When you're traveling and you want to view a particular spreadsheet that's on your home computer, unless you're willing to call your 13-year-old son or daughter and ask them to email that document to you, you'll just have to wait until you return home to access it. If something more serious occurs, such as a fire or your computer is stolen, having your data solely on your home or office machine may cause endless regret.

Cloud computing has problems, too, but most of these problems are either very rare or minor. Let's look at what I think is the most serious one first: When your data resides in the cloud, ownership isn't as certain as it is when your data is just on your home computer. Last week a Federal judge ordered Google to reveal the name of a Gmail user and to deactivate that user's account because a Colorado bank accidentally sent to that Gmail address the confidential information of over 1,300 customers. (The Gmail user wasn't accused of anything; and the Gmail user didn't respond to the bank's emails.) Companies that host email and other data will generally give up information only under a court order -- the same kind of order you'd have to respond to, too. Email that you send and email that's been sent to you are already out in the wild and not fully under your control.

Most data in the cloud is protected by a password: Anyone with your username and password can see your stuff. Your data at home is protected by a locked door, and if you want, you can encrypt your data, too, for added safety, making it almost impossible for somebody to get access to. Mere password protection isn't all that secure, but password protected online data can be made more secure by using hard-to-guess, unique passwords. (I'll have more on passwords and encryption in a future column.)

If you lose Internet access, you lose access to your data in the cloud. Sort of. Maybe. Or at least that's one of the arguments against working in the cloud. Many cloud-based systems are actually hybrid systems where your important data lives in the cloud and on your PC, either fully or in part. Evernote,, a popular note taking program, keeps a copy of your data on your computer and on their servers -- and what's great about that is that you can access your notes anywhere in the world (including on your iPhone, Blackberry or Windows Mobile phone.) Gmail has the option of locally caching your email, so that if you lose Internet access, you can still read and respond to messages. Gladinet,, a $40 program, will gleefully back up your Google Documents: there are other ways to back up what you keep in the cloud, too. If you have a smartphone, there's never a need to worry about not having access to your email, to-do list, calendar, or contacts if the Internet breaks.

The cloud isn't as powerful or feature-rich as desktop software. That's true, but it only matters for some people some of the time. You can't do fancy formatting of wordprocessing documents in the cloud, and photo editing in the cloud doesn't come close to what you can accomplish with Photoshop. But sometimes it's a relief not to have so many features to choose from: In the cloud software is often simpler because it's streamlined. But that doesn't mean you can't get things done when you work on your stuff in the cloud. Give Zoho Documents,, for wordprocessing, or Picnik,, for photo editing a try to see how robust browser-based services are.

People are apprehensive about the cloud for many of the same reasons that we're nervous about flying: We don't understand how it works, and we're not in control. Even though driving is many times more dangerous than taking a commercial flight, we still fear flying more than driving. But the cloud isn't any more or less mystical than is desktop software. Very few people have a handle on what goes on inside Yahoo's servers. But the same can be said about Microsoft Outlook: That giant data file (the PST) is equally inscrutable. With both commercial desktop and cloud software you are beholden to the companies that write that software. If you're jittery about the cloud, consider that you're probably already trusting a lot of your data to unseen servers. Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, YouTube, and your personal blogs are just some of the services based entirely in the cloud.

There is another difference between desktop and cloud software. Software updates fly instantly to software in the cloud. If there's a bug in Hotmail, Microsoft can fix that right away, and effortlessly, as far as you're concerned. If there's a bug in Quickbooks, you'll have to wait until there's an update available and then install the software yourself: download, install, agree to the revised terms of service, click, close other conflicting programs, click again, click once more, wait as your computer slows to a crawl because of the installation, then, if you're lucky, you won't have to reboot. Cloud computing has my vote when it comes to updating software.

Desktop software is customizable, while cloud software isn't: That's another myth about cloud computing. Many cloud-based products have customizations built in; others, such as Gmail, can be made better with browser add-ons. One add-on is Better Gmail2,  which can hide the spam count (spam's inevitable, so why know the number of spam emails you have?), and perform other Gmail tricks.

Many PCs come with the ability to be restored to their original factory settings, in case you're struck by a virus or cause a self-inflicted calamity. This can get you out of a sticky situation, but then you're confronted with the daunting task of reinstalling all of your programs, configuring each of them (you have all the disks, don't you?), and then putting your data back onto your hard drive. Next month, Microsoft's new operating system, Windows 7, comes to town. Windows XP users who want to upgrade will have to reformat their drives, do a clean install and then put all their programs back on. It doesn't get more fun than that when it comes to playing with your computer. If you want to miss out on the pleasures of reinstalling all of your software and configurations, then ascend to the cloud and do as much as you can from within your web browser.

Working in the cloud keeps getting easier, faster and more reliable. Google recently launched its "Data Liberation Front," based on the philosophy that it's your data and you should be able to export it to whatever platform you want, just as you can port your phone number from one provider to another. It's liberating not to have to be tied to a single computer, or even a single cloud-based company.


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and the author of over 20 books including "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," and "Outwitting Squirrels." Adler's technology column appears on All Life Is Local and the Cleveland Park Listserv,

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