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Is Cloud Computing the Wave of the Future?

Or should we stick to the devil we know?

Patrick Kiger's Science Channel Blog

Is Web-based cloud computing the wave of the future, or should we stick to the devil we know? The big player in cloud computing is Google, the online search, advertising, email, mapping and video behemoth, whose cumulative dominance of the Internet rivals Microsoft’s dominance in operating systems and applications software.
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Hurricane … er, tropical storm Hanna probably was a bit of a disappointment to those of you who are extreme weather junkies, but storm-force winds or no, the brief downpour that we had in the Washington, D.C., area managed to knock out my little corner of the electrical grid. So I’m been compelled to camp out in the coffee shop of a nearby Borders bookstore and contend for one of the precious few three-prong outlets that are available for recharging the laptops and cell phones of the uprooted, information-starved horde. But enough of one man’s lament. Let’s turn instead to a more universal — or nearly so — problem: Microsoft Windows.

Believe it or not, there is a logical thread here, because Windows has a lot in common with the weather. Like the latter, everybody complains about the most kludgy, temperamental and ubiquitous of operating systems, while knowing full well that there’s nothing we can do about it. As I’ve written about previously, those woes have been exacerbated by the coming of the dreaded Windows Vista, with its annoying habit of continually asking permission to perform functions, its demands that we download new drivers for peripherals, and its capricious-at-best compatibility with software that doesn’t have “Microsoft” on the label. OK, so we could join the fringe that has defected to the Mac OS, but that would mean overcoming our aversion to expensive, unnaturally white computers, buying all new software and possibly even getting WWSJD (“What Would Steve Jobs Do?”) vanity license plates.

But now, there’s another possibility, a tantalizing vision of a future in which Windows — or the Mac OS — might no longer matter. A world in which we not only won’t have to worry about whether our software is compatible with our OS, but in which we won’t ever have to install any software again, period. A world in which we’ll be able to do just about everything we need, from updating a spreadsheet to editing digital photos, inside the borders of a platform-agnostic browser. I’m talking about cloud computing, in which software will actually run on distant Internet servers, rather than our PCs.

A harbinger: The big player in cloud computing is Google, the online search, advertising, email, mapping and video behemoth, whose cumulative dominance of the Internet rivals Microsoft’s dominance in operating systems and applications software. In 2006, Google introduced Google Apps, a service that offers a Web-based word processor, a spreadsheet program and other applications meant to challenge Microsoft Office. To go with them, it recently unveiled Google Chrome, an open-source alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser. As InformationWeek writer Mitch Wagner explains:

Google wanted to build a new browser from scratch, designed specifically to be used with the new generation of Web applications. Many of those applications are, of course, Google's own: Gmail, Google Docs, Google Reader, and more. Google designed the browser to be lightweight, fast, have a minimalist user interface, and to resist crashing under the heavy JavaScript demands of Web applications.

As PC World reviewer Nick Mediati notes:

Chrome's design bridges the gap between desktop and so-called "cloud computing." At the touch of a button, Chrome lets you make a desktop, Start menu, or QuickLaunch shortcut to any Web page or Web application, blurring the line between what's online and what's inside your PC. For example, I created a desktop shortcut for Google Maps. When you create a shortcut for a Web application, Chrome strips away all of the toolbars and tabs from the window, leaving you with something that feels much more like a desktop application than like a Web application or page.

One doesn’t have to consult www.nostradamusonline.com to see where this all could well lead. The beta release of Chrome, oddly, is only Windows-compatible; a Mac OS version reportedly is in the works — as is, more significantly, a version of Chrome for the free, open-source Linux OS. Envision a future in which your basic PC costs about as much as a bottle of Jägermeister and is even easier to use, a world in which you’ll never have to hear these sounds ever again.

But there’s a potential downside, as usual. If we all eventually tell Microsoft to stick it and turn to the Internet and Google as our operating system and our apps, are we only getting ourselves into the sort of situation that Pete Townsend might describe as “here’s to the new boss/same as the old boss”? It would make Google the most powerful company on Earth (if it isn’t already). A lot of critics already are worrying about Google’s ability to track and analyze what you do on the Web, and the uses to which it might put that information. (Here’s a 2007 study by the watchdog group Privacy International that is decidedly uncomplimentary.) And they were even less thrilled with the wording of Chrome’s end-user agreement, which, as Computerworld notes, originally contained

"a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through" the new browser.

Google subsequently deleted that clause, but you’ve got to wonder what they had in mind when they put it in.

So, what do you think? Is Web-based cloud computing the wave of the future, or should we stick to the devil we know? Express your opinion here.

[This article appeared first here is is republished with the kind permission of the author. Copyright remains with the author and Science Channel.]

More Stories By Patrick J Kiger

Patrick J Kiger blogs at the Science Channel. He has written for GQ, Mother Jones, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and other print publications, in addition to being a longtime contributor to the Discovery Channel, Discovery Times and TLC on the Web. One of his articles made the 2004 Best Writing of the Year list at www.rockcritics.com. He also is the co-author, with Martin J. Smith, of Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore that Shaped Modern America (Harper Resource, 2004), and OOPS! 20 Life Lessons from the Fiascos that Shaped America (Collins, 2006). He has been interviewed on Fox News and National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" program. You can check out more of his work at www.patrickjkiger.com.

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