Cloud Illusions

This article first appeared in the Irish Times Innovation Magazine last Friday,  June 24th.   I was asked to try and give an explanation of some of the competitive dynamics in the software industry at the moment,   particularly Google versus Microsoft;  and also to explain Apple’s move to the cloud.

I really took some artistic license in trying to find a real world analogy,  and anticipated possible flames from one or two in the tech community who doubtless would see flaws in my arguments and metaphors.   None yet however,  but maybe they’ll still come :-)

How do you explain what’s happening in the software industry?

Let me give you an analogy. It used to be as if various software companies made certain sports equipment – like different balls, bats, nets and so on – while some other software companies constructed different arenas, pitches and recreation halls. People could then assemble the requisite equipment together and play their favourite sport.

Then along came Microsoft. Microsoft had vision: it combined things together. Microsoft built and sells integrated multi-purpose stadiums. You can play football, baseball, hockey – most major sports – within their very impressive buildings.

Thus Bill Gates, and other Microsofties, made an awful lot of money.

But then it was as if Google said maybe people would like to find out where the various stadia actually are; what teams are playing; and what are the scores. Pretty soon Google realised that different people follow different teams: when Ross O’Carroll-Kelly asks about “the team” he doesn’t mean Martin Johnson… Thus Google realised that it could deliver precision advertising: e.g. targetting D4 citizens who have malossol for breakfast.

Thus Sergei Brin and Larry Page , and other Googlers, made an awful lot of money.

Then Google decided to take on Microsoft. Google were clever: rather than a head to head confrontation, they instead changed the industry dynamics. In embracing the internet and web much more aggressively than Microsoft, it is as if they went out to the public parks and playing pitches. They said that any sports team, and everyone else, can play here. They encouraged people to develop entirely new sports games, along with the traditional ones played in the Microsoft edifices. Google suggested that there was no longer any need to pay Microsoft in advance to build expensive multi-purpose stadia, but instead come and join everyone else in these wonderful wide open spaces.

Google then said if you really really really want, you can find out what is going on by using personal computer.  But a much better way is to use your Android smart phone. Your phone fits in your pocket,  unlike your PC: not only can you use your phone to call somebody, but we can make it aware of what is hip and happening.

Google re-postioned familiar Microsoft concepts. Google Documents is akin to Microsoft Office, but in the community world-wide cloud. GMail is like Outlook, but in “the cloud”. You need a filing cabinet system, like Windows, but you can have it in the cloud: thus your smart Android phone can access that very same document in Google Docs which you editted from your Windows PC. It is as if Google had said that football needn’t always be played in a stadium; basketball needn’t always be played in a gymnasium; and you can enjoy and participate in any game anywhere even if you don’t have an arena.

Cloud computing changes the dynamics. You pay-as-you-go, rather than the pre-paying to buy software. You can access information from any device – your personal computer, your office computer and your smart phone. Provided you have a modest broadband connection, you can join in from pretty much anywhere on the planet.

But clouds are nebulous, bright and dark. Some businesses and consumers believe that cloud computing is unproven and unsafe. Their fears were dramatically confirmed last April when Amazon’s cloud infrastructure failed for several days, and in so doing badly damaged businesses which had outsourced their computing requirements to Amazon.

Joni Mitchell sang that that she had seen both sides of clouds, up and down, and that she really didn’t know clouds at all. Last week Steve Jobs stepped forward and asserted to all doubters and unbelievers: absolutely no problem, you don’t need to.

It as is if Bill built multi-purpose stadia; Sergie and Larry went for the open public park; and Steve has gone for his own play pen. Steve offers a limited set of Apple toys, and they all work wonderfully together. Steve provides his shop, the App Store, and you can buy more toys there if you want. Now, Steve in effect will offer you your own cupboard (its called “iCloud” but don’t worry about that) which will automatically preserve everything for you. Everything just works as fully as you expect it to.

By building a controlled environment, Apple have cleverly constructed a collection of devices, content and experiences for the consumer masses. Rather than have you google to try and track down information on the world wide web, Apple instead provides a wide range of pre-packaged applications (from both its own developers and third parties) each of which is individually crafted, with easy to understand graphics, to do just a specific task. And now, as you move from your old personal computer (as long as its a Mac!), to your smart phone (as long as its an iPhone!), or even to your new personal tablet (as long as its an iPad!), then everything you use and like will automatically be right in front of you on each device.

Microsoft has been driven by cool dudes. Google has been driven by cool developers. Apple is driven by really cool design: aesthetics matter. Cloud computing may excite the geeks, but Steve has now said you don’t need to worry about it: cloud illusions are totally ignorable.

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2 Responses to Cloud Illusions

  1. cpuguy says:

    in my opinion apple’s move into the cloud is all about content and amking apple’s platform as “sticky” as possible

  2. Chris,

    Great blog entry. I enjoyed reading that and it made a lot of sense. I was just listening to this podcast, from the iSchool Berkeley collection at iTunes yesterday, and I just thought it was worth sharing with you.

    March 4, 2009
    David Clark, MIT: “The Internets We Did Not Build”

    This guy has been in telecommunications like for ever. If you listen to it, it is one hour of your live you will not have wasted, if you are interested at all in computer networks and the state of thinking today. You have to hear the sound impersonation he makes when a router dies. Or the other sound he makes when he describes David Reed’s radical left networking (no infrastructure, no masts) idea.

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