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The Cloud

Entry 1306, on 2011-06-16 at 20:09:30 (Rating 1, Computers)

The latest buzzword in computing for a few years now has been the "cloud". The concept is that information is stored in non-specific locations on the internet for computer users who don't know (or need to know) exactly where or how their information is stored.

I blogged about my thoughts regarding this trend about 2 years ago in an entry titled "A Cloudy Future" on 2009-08-03. The issues I talked about then haven't changed much... or maybe they have.

There are several advantages to the cloud approach. First, the documents stored in the cloud are available to any device connected to the cloud (internet). So if a person needs a document but they don't have their computer handy they can get it by logging in to their cloud account from a different computer. The same applies to other devices like tablets and smart phones. Sharing between devices like these should be transparent.

A second advantage is that the information (documents, music, movies, photos, etc) doesn't need to be stored on the actual device in use so it's possible to build tablet computers (for example) with small amounts of storage (making them cheaper, lighter, and less power hungry) while still having access to lots of data.

Other potential advantages include the fact that (presumably) the data is backed up by the company operating the cloud service. And with really fast internet it might even be possible to get a performance advantage as well.

There are a few disadvantages though. First, many people do not have fast networking available to them so in most cases documents stored in the cloud will be slower to access than those stored locally. There is also the problem of being disconnected from the internet completely: on a plane or in a remote area with no cell or wifi cover, for example.

Then there's the possible cost involved. Many cloud services are free to a point but it might get expensive if the user has a lot of data. And depending on what data plans are in use the process of accessing the data will incur extra costs for the transfer.

Many cloud services rely on specialised applications to access the data. These are often web based and are usually considerably less powerful and more difficult to use than their desktop equivalents. So using cloud services might lead to a loss of functionality as well.

Finally there is security. Should users trust a cloud service provider which reads their information and inserts ads, for example? Is the data transferred in a secure and encrypted way? And has the provider taken sufficient steps to guard against its facility being hacked?

Now that I have got the introduction out of the way I want to consider the main point of this entry: Apple's iCloud service. I don't generally like commenting on products or services I haven't used but I will make a few preliminary comments here and maybe comment further after I have actually used it for a while.

It seems to me that Apple are doing the cloud the way it should be done. Instead of a primary storage system it is used more as a distribution system. In other words, most of the documents exist on the individual devices like they always have. Because these are just documents they can be accessed using the same programs people have always used. And if there is slow or even no internet service all that happens is that synchronisation is temporarily stopped until the internet connection is re-established.

It's very much like modern email systems where the same account can be accessed from multiple devices but the devices can still operate fully off-line as well. The email messages exist primarily on the server but they are cached locally on each device for when the network is unavailable and to improve performance.

There are some potential issues with this approach. For example, if more than one person modifies the same document off-line which copy is used when the connection returns? This is the sort of detail which Apple will have to get right if iCloud is going to be fully successful.

Many other issues seem to have already been answered: Apple will not scan the content of the documents it stores, it will not insert ads, it will encrypt data as it is sent and received, and it will provide a reasonable basic amount of storage for free.

I regularly use a Mac laptop, an iPad and an iPhone. I also use many other Macs for specific purposes (as servers for example) so a synchronisation service running through the cloud seems like it would be really useful to me.

iCloud isn't the first cloud service but the Mac wasn't the first computer, the iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, the iPad wasn't the first tablet, and the iPhone wasn't the first smartphone. All of these products weren't the first but they are the best. If Apple does this properly then iCloud could be the best too.

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