Tech Talk: Get ready for ‘cloud’ computing

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The first column I wrote for Rural Builder a decade ago began like this: “Cleopatra, queen of the Nile, committed suicide by clutching an asp to her breast. Rural builders today are wondering if they will suffer a similar fate if they embrace an ASP, an acronym that stands for Application Service Provider.” The idea was that a computer program would reside on its publisher’s web site instead of on your computer, and you would run it from the Internet.

I was 10 years ahead of my time.

Microsoft has just released the latest version of its Office suite — Version 2010 — including Word, Excel and PowerPoint. You can buy them for $120 to $680 (depending on configuration), or you can get them for free.

That’s right: free.

The programs reside on Microsoft’s server computers and you can access them over the Internet.

Sound familiar? The difference is that now it’s called “cloud” computing — as if everything resides on a cloud somewhere out there in cyberspace.

The free version of Office was scheduled to hit the market in June. I did not had an opportunity to try it prior to submitting this article for publication. But the basic idea is neat: Instead of having to uninstall/reinstall the suite every time an update comes along or every time you replace a computer, the revisions are posted automatically by the vendor on the vendor’s server.

Moreover, have you noticed that you rarely put anything on paper any more for yourself? Almost everything you prepare is intended to be shared. Instead of shipping around multiple copies and perhaps getting back multiple responses to the multiple copies, consider how much more efficient it would be to have everyone work on one version stored on a centrally accessible server. You permit access to designated people for designated files and protect the rest.

And with a central server, there’s not much worry about system crashes, backing up or other maintenance. You’ll always be current, which is a comfort considering the fast pace of change.

For example, do you have any precious data on floppy disks? They’re no longer being made. Soon you won’t be able to find a drive capable of reading them. CDs are about to become obsolete and DVDs are not far behind.

Remember the story about the “with-it” government agency that decided some decades ago that paper was obsolete, and it would convert all its archives to digital format? Great, until the time came to access the old files, and the agency discovered that it was no longer possible to repair its punched-card reader.

A delightful video, lasting less than three minutes, explains cloud computing visually: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRqUE6IHTEA.
So what’s the catch?

There are several. For starters, do you trust anyone to keep your data as secure as you could keep it yourself? I have mixed feelings about privacy and security. Back when I was in the Army, every telephone had a sign reminding the user that the line was not secure. The warning is as old as “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” I continue to be amazed at how many people are willing to divulge their Social Security number to anyone who asks — and everyone seems to ask.

I used to be a security zealot, but I’ve come to believe that my life is pretty much an open book. Google yourself some time; you’ll be amazed at how transparent your life is — and that’s with no particular effort or expertise.

As determined as a cloud-vendor might be to keep your information secure, a subsequent owner might find it profitable to share the acccumulated data with the highest bidder. Or the government or a court might demand access. (See China twisting Google’s arm.) The asp that bit Cleopatra could be the ASP that bites you.

OK, so “free” is hard to pass up in today’s economy. But how long will it stay free, once you commit yourself (and your data) to Microsoft (or whoever)? Once the fish takes the bait, the frying pan is not far off.

Moreover, you probably should not expect much service, such as technical support, for anything you get for free. And there might be limits on storage space. CAD files and photographs can get mighty large, perhaps triggering a fee for exceeding your allotment.

Assuming you can accept those risks, you still have the complexities of Office to deal with. Do you really need a Ferrari to commute to work? It’s cool to have the latest version of Microsoft Word, for example, but most small businesses will use only a tiny fraction of its power.

Remember how long it took to transition to your present version of Word? Everything had moved; nothing was where it used to be; searching for routine functions was a frustrating adventure. Check yourself: Click on just the visible options on the command line of Word; how many do you use?

Back in the days when I managed the computer-aided architecture evaluation program for the American Institute of Architects, the evaluators who volunteered to try out the various CAD programs told me straight off that they didn’t care which one had the most features; all they cared about was usability. Did it help them do productive work in their offices? Anything more was just bragging rights: “bloatware” as it was (and still is) called.

An expert’s point of view
As those of you who have read any of my recent columns all the way to the end have discovered, I teach journalism. My computer system administrator at Southern Illinois University, Matthew MacCrimmon, has access to all the latest and greatest computers and business software. Yet he decided recently that he was going to make his personal life Microsoft-free. It’s not that he has anything against Microsoft or high technology; it’s that he believes in appropriate technology — that is, software that is simple, easy to use, intuitive and quick.

His solution? An array of functions known as Google Apps (for Applications). They include a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing and, of course, e-mail, which Google calls g-mail, plus much more — even a browser (Chrome) intended to compete with Microsoft Explorer.

“A skillful chef won’t use a dedicated machine for every job,” MacCrimmon said, “just a few tools in different ways to get multiple jobs done. As for myself, I prefer giving up extra capabilities that I don’t need on a regular basis.”

All the programs in Google Documents are Office-compatible and they are free. In fact, I use Google Docs as a convenient backup utility for current files. In going back and forth between Google Docs and Microsoft Office, I do lose most of the formatting (such as automatic paragraph indents from Microsoft Word), but the data is there.

The driving force behind the Google documents suite is sharing. Google Docs was designed from the bottom up for collaboration. It works smoothly.

Of course, the usual worries about security, privacy, service and storage persist. Google Docs are free now, but will they remain free once you have been hooked?

Practically speaking, it’s hard to build a business plan around “free.” Microsoft says its free version will contain ads. How many advertisements are you willing to suffer for “free” software? Alternatively, it’s not hard to imagine a two-tier system with basic programs (like NotePad or WordPad) free and more powerful versions (like Word) at a price. Google’s SketchUp already has two-tier pricing.

MacCrimmon anticipates the day when computers will be sold and used with just an Internet browser. All programs and data will reside on a common server on a cloud in cyberspace. Will this mean — finally — the end of paper? Does that prospect make you feel threatened or liberated?

For now, competition probably will keep functionality high and costs low or free. Microsoft, for example, says its free version will be more capable than Google Docs but less capable than its for-sale version.

At least one other player, Sun Microsystems (acquired earlier this year by Oracle), also offers a suite of free software, called OpenOffice. It has gotten good reviews, although I have not tried it. Those of you in the Apple world have comparable free options, some of them bundled with the Macintosh operating system. For more information, go to:

http://office.microsoft.com/
http://www.google.com/
http://openoffice.org-suite.com/

Questions or comments for Oliver Witte can be directed to him at orlwjr@gmail.com or via the editor at sharon.thatcher@fwmedia.com

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