When computers were the size of small houses and there were very few in operation; most people accessed them via remote terminals, either in the same building or over large distances. These dumb terminals were effectively simple input/output devices and therefore needed very little processing power. All the main work was stored and executed by the mainframe and the results fed out to the remote terminal.
This had the drawback that at the time connecting to these mainframes over distance was very slow and expensive. As computers became smaller and cheaper you could have the computer in your own home or office and the need for these terminals ended. Now it appears that we are, in a way, heading back to this old way of working. For example; the Google Goggles app works by you photographing a work or art or logo etc and it then sends this scan (Or probably some hash of it) to Google who compare it against their library of images till it finds a match then it sends you back the result. So snap a photo of a painting and seconds later you have all the information about it you could need. This also works for translating foreign text and barcodes etc. Shazam is a sort of audio version of Goggles, if you are listening to some music and don’t know who it is, run Shazam app on your phone and it listens for about 8 seconds then returns the track title, Artist, Album etc.
The important thing to remember here is that your phone is doing very little work, the phone app is a thin client, it just sends the data to a server and displays the results. The server is doing all the hard work at a remote site from you. So mobile devices are able to perform tasks well above their processing and storage capability, it also helps on battery consumption as all the power hungry elements are handled in the cloud.
A great service I use is Google Docs. This enables you to create documents, Spreadsheets, Presentations & drawings etc. It’s nowhere near as complex and flexible as Microsoft word but for day to day use it’s fine. Your web browser is used as a dumb terminal simply inputting and displaying results. Even the files themselves are stored remotely, which is good. ‘So what’s the advantage of that over local storage of your files’ you may ask? There are three main advantages, as files are in the cloud you can get them from anywhere you have access to the Internet, secondly all backup is taken care for you. Thirdly the documents can be accessed from any platform, you are not tied to Windows, Mac or Linux etc.
So where is this magical place where all this work is carried out and stored? The cloud. It’s not one place but could be anywhere and indeed more than one place. A service I have used is Jungle Disk which backs up data on your PC to servers that mirror this data on other servers in various location round the world. This distribution of your data makes your valued files quite safe.
One worrying issue with storing your data in the cloud is that the provider of this service could have access to it and if someone hacks your logon details they will have access. When I write a document on GDocs I’m sure Google trawl the document for information they may find useful to target me better for services or products. You sometimes have the option to encrypt such as with Jungle Disk. Before the data is uploaded it’s encrypted so nobody can see what the data is except you, also during the transfer the data is encrypted again using TLS. When you download the files it’s decrypted. Other services may not have built in encryption but you can always use a third party solution such as AXCrypt. It’s very strong encryption with a key-file option & it’s free.
Privacy issues are a major concern for me but as with anything else in life you have to weigh the benefits with the possible problems. Having all my notes, contacts, calendar info, email, documents, music, photos etc available pretty much anywhere at anytime outweigh the possible problems. Where possible use encryption, just make sure you use high entropy passwords and use different passwords for every site. Managing this can become a problem unless you use services such as LastPass which stores all your passwords in the cloud under one master password. Now because this one master password is the ‘keys to the kingdom’ it’s worth substantially beefing up your protection of it with multi factor authentication.
All this cloud computing means that the device you are using to connect can be pretty simple, essentially just running a web browser or small app then all the hard work is carried out remotely. Obviously one main problem with this setup is connection to the cloud. A few years ago we were paying for wireless connections to the Internet on a per byte basis and if you were not careful you could quickly clock up a large bill for your cloud computing. Now we tend to have much cheaper deals and with the speed increase has made cloud computing a much more attractive prospect. If you are connecting from home on a broadband circuit then speeds are blindingly fast.
I started moving to the cloud in a big way about a year ago. But before that I have, since 2005, had all my photos in the cloud courtesy of Flickr. This blog is based in the cloud, I wrote this article using WordPress online. All my mail had been web based for many years and I found myself using GDocs more and more. In 2009 my cell phone data charges were at a stage where it was fast enough to cloud compute from a phone and the costs were minimal.
So what happens when we don’t have access to the net? Some programs such as Evernote keep a local cache of your work so a loss of connection is not noticed. With Google gears some of there services work offline then sync with the cloud when they see a connection again.
HTML 5 has provisions for offline services built into it and this will help a lot. I really hope that Google Maps will let you download a country or area for it’s navigation. Recently whilst driving in the UK countryside my phone kept losing a data connection and the navigation simply stops working. It’s also rather annoying that when you go abroad that’s when all this cloud stuff is at it’s most useful. Navigation, translation, web browsing & email etc.
Unfortunately because of data roaming charges I end up being scared to use my cell for fear of returning home to some huge bill. You tend to end up seeking out free Wi-Fi hotspots and binging on data before having to move away from this oasis of data back out into this, literally, foreign land, like some Borg separated from the collective.
Browsers are now almost becoming the operating system because of this cloud based approach. This is taken to the limits with Google’s Chrome OS which is essentially JUST a browser. This could be the best solution for you parents or grandparents as these units SHOULD be maintenance free. There is no local software to maintain, no viruses to worry about. Just boot up the unit, which should be very fast, and the browser launches and you are set to go. It is odd to think that as we advance in processing power the day to day devices we use may get dumber and dumber. At the moment most cloud based apps are not as good as installed ones, however services such as GDocs are getting better all the time and some services such as Photoshop.com are truly amazing and show the real potential of cloud computing.
- Flickr. Photo site.
- DropBox. Online file sync between platforms.
- Google Docs. Fairly basic online Office suite of tools.
- Evernote. Note taking with OCR for photographs.
- Last.FM. Stream music.
- LastPass. Password manager.
- Xmarks. Syncs browser bookmarks & passwords.
- Subsonic. Audio Streaming service that works extremely well.
- Orb. Stream TV, Films & music from remote PC.
- Picnik. Good photo editing.
- Jungle Disk. Online backup.
- Jaycut.com. Online Video editing
- Steam. Download games from the net and store your settings and achievements in the cloud.