This NYT piece about what’s been called “Google’s assault on Microsoft” is a really good read, mostly because it does a good job of outlining the concept of “cloud computing.” Google has bet at least a sizable chunk of the farm on cloud computing, and if their gamble pays off it will mean that the way we all think of and use computers will undergo a major transition.
Essentially, Google has begun offering software online that Microsoft has always kept firmly chained to the deskbound PC. Because Google Apps, which is what the company calls its suite of email, instant messaging, calendar, and text document and spreadsheet editing software, exists solely online, it resides on a multitude of servers that are accessible from any number of devices. In other words, the software and hardware you use for your computing needs are as nebulous an entity as the clouds. You will be as free as the clouds, too, as opposed to stuck at your desk where your PC exists. It promises to be an epic business battle, one that we will all be aware of on at least some basic level, as it will play itself out very publicly in the marketplace.
Google, of course, is on to something, despite the protestations of Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft’s business division. Raikes says his company has loads of market research that proves Google is being arrogant and brash in thinking they can force such a transition on the software market.
On the contrary, Google is just astutely anticipating the current trends in technology. This is a business war, of course, but it has implications for more than just how we work, so I think it’s important to look at larger trends. To whit: People don’t just sit at home and listen to music any more, they take it with them everywhere they go on their iPod, just as they aren’t content to send email or IM their friends and colleagues from their personal computer, they want these functions on their Blackberry or iPhone so they get their messages no matter where they are.
People are on the move and they want their software to keep up with them. Google is trying to guess what form software-on-the-go will take. They may be wrong and they may be right that Google Apps is roughly it, but at least the company is mobile enough to change quickly if they need to. Microsoft, on the other hand, has to wait for their next product release, then they have to evaluate that release, and start another two-year development cycle to respond to the new demands of the market.
A long time ago, before computers, and even before books, people got most of their information from tribal storytellers. People would go to a communal space and hear stories that informed them of their culture, their history, their identity. Books, audio recordings, and TV have taken over as the chief way people get this kind of information today, and all of these formats require us to be alone in our houses, or at least secluded in a cozy chair at the café, while partaking in the culture that surrounds us. This has always struck me as quite the conundrum, one that is solved by the Internet.
I think we are coming to a phase of our culture where we need to come full circle, to reconnect with some of the fundamental aspects of our existence on this planet. That is the real promise of the Internet, and that is essentially what Google is trying to anticipate. I’m not saying I’m pulling for them over any other corporate entity, just that they seem to be actually attuned to the zeitgeist better than Microsoft’s legions of market researchers. I think that anything that gets people to congregate and experience the world communally is a good thing.
So-called “thin clients” are another trend toward communal computing. We waste a ton of energy while our computers are on but not actually computing. So the thinking is that if we create thin clients, devices that do no processing of their own but instead allow you to send and receive data from some shared processing center, we will not only conserve energy but reduce the amount of materials we use. According to a post on the blog WorldChanging from a while back, “Sun Microsystems is trying to push the world towards systems like this; they say existing thin-client systems use a tenth of the power and reduce raw material usage by a factor of 150.”
The NYT quotes Google CEO Eric Schmidt as saying “Velocity matters,” and basically sets it up as the guiding principle of Google’s product development. I quote it mostly because I like the phrase. But also it’s fairly poignant: As the software industry adjusts to the realities of the demand for products in today’s marketplace, velocity certainly does matter. Not only in how quick companies bring products to market, but also for those products themselves. If they don’t have the velocity to keep up with consumers, those products won’t go very far.
It’s also relevant because the Earth will be in increasingly bad shape if we keep consuming energy and raw materials the way we have been. The velocity with which we respond to this situation matters. Only by coming together to solve this problem communally will we ever really be able to solve it. Interesting, then, that a chief solution to the problem might very well be bringing people together to share their computing power communally.