Sunday, June 25, 2017

What's The Deal With Cloud Computing?

More and more companies are trying to push us into the "Cloud" - is this a good deal for ordinary consumers?   Probably not, and it is just one battle in a war than has been raging for decades.

A reader writes asking whether cloud computing is the wave of the future. It may very well be, but is also the wave of the past.  I have written about "The Cloud" before, and whether or not it was secure.  Before we begin, I should note that the term "Cloud" is one of those words like "Blockchain" - a trendy, hip buzzword to use to mean almost anything you want it to mean - and to bamboozle investors at the same time.   If you feel dumb by asking what it actually means, well, they have got you right there.   In reality, none of this "tech" stuff is really terribly as complicated as it seems, but buzzwords make it seem moreso - and worth investing in.

But the concept of the "cloud" is arguably nothing new.  Prior to the introduction of the personal computer, if you wanted to use a computer you had to go to the Great Hall of Computers and pay homage to the computer geeks and temple acolytes who manned the punch cards at the IBM Mainframe and beg them their indulgence to run your program for you.  The computer was big, the computer was blue, and it cost an enormous amount of money and made an enormous amount of profits for IBM.

The computer Revolution started in the early 1970s with mini-mainframes such as the PDP-8 and PDP-11 coming to the fore, allowing many small companies to operate and own their own computers without having to deal with IBM.  But even those computers were cantankerous and difficult and required someone to write software for them.

The personal computer revolution started toward the end of the 1970's.  As I noted before there was a motley collection of different types of PCs being used.  The dominant type seem to be CPM based systems (e.g., Mostek) which were still rather expensive.  Apple burst onto the scene with its Apple II computer which was less expensive than existing personal computers and cheap enough for home hobbyists to buy.  However, it was the development of the IBM-PC which established the standardized architecture for the personal computer which we still largely used today.

The real revolution of the personal computer wasn't its size or cost or even computing power, it was the idea that you can own a computer and own your software and not have to continually pay leasing fees or maintenance fees to IBM or other large computer companies or maintain an army of computer programmers and geeks to maintain massive machines.  You could buy a personal computer and buy software that would perform word processing tasks and basic accounting tasks and own the whole damn thing outright.

And in the beginning, all is well for the personal computer business, as the market was going like gangbusters as few people have them and everyone wanted one.  IBM slowly faded from the scene, even after their attempts at making a personal computer, because the generic third-party computers were far cheaper.

Companies like Microsoft made a lot of money because they kept selling copies of DOS to all these people who were buying new computers. Other companies such as Lotus 1-2-3 sold spreadsheet software and WordPerfect sold its word processing software.  However, there was very little in the way of copy protection back then, people freely exchanged software with one another, even at the Patent Office.

Both Microsoft and Apple realized they had to come up with a new "must have" product to force people to upgrade to a new operating system and new computer - as the market was becoming saturated with DOS machines.  Ahhh.... those were the days, when you bought a new computer and it actually was faster and ran better than the previous one, and you actually had more usable storage as well, as files didn't come encrusted with "metadata" that took them from kilobytes to megabytes.

And thus Windows was born.  Once Windows became established, people had to chuck their old DOS-based PCS and DOS programs.  Microsoft also expanded into other areas including word processing, with Word replacing WordPerfect in a massive sea change in the industry.

But Microsoft was stuck with the same problem. Once people bought a copy of their software, they were kind of set for life unless it was a compelling need to upgrade, and most upgrades were not very compelling. People felt they could skip one or two or even three upgrade cycles without too much damage to their business.

Microsoft attempted to force upgrades on people, for example making Windows 10 entirely different from Windows 7 by using touch screen technology - and forcing people to load it on their computer using the "Windows Update" feature.  Once installed, all the old programs would no longer work, forcing people to buy new copies - or lease copies - of their software.  They also created the new .docx format for Word documents forcing people to upgrade to a new version of Word - a version which relies on subscriptions rather than purchasing.

If you look at the history of the PC, you'll see that there has been an internal tension since its creation, between the centralization of the computer versus de-centralization.  And people have tried to take the PC and re-centralize it since it was born.  The idea is to destroy the people's PC revolution and replace it with a corporate architecture instead.

I first ran into this at a law firm I worked at, where we used a "Thin Client" network to prepare our documents and accounting.  We had a massive server with a RAID drive array comprising a number of parallel hard drives.  Each one of the computers used by the attorneys and secretaries contained only a floppy drive and access all data and programs was from the network.

It all would work fine unless the drive array failed.  And you can guess what happened next.  Our IT person ran into trouble with the backup software and for several weeks stopped backing up the drive array because they had interface difficulties with the backup tape system.  Then the drive array crashed, and there was no way to restore it.  The array was removed and sent to remote data processing center to recover our data and reformat the drive array or replace it.  In the meantime, we're all stuck with basically the equivalent of an IBM XT with a single floppy drive.

I quickly made copies of floppy disks with a basic features of DOS on them as well as the basic features of WordPerfect (without the dictionary and thesaurus). This would all fit on one 720K floppy, and I handed this out to the secretaries who were somewhat disappointed as they felt this was a great opportunity to take a week-long vacation while still getting paid.  They were able to boot up their computers create documents and print them.  And since most of our physical file folders contained a floppy disk with all the documents for that file, we were able to access existing files in most cases.

That experience with "Thin Client" illustrated why centralizing all your data at one source is sometimes fraught with peril.  And it also Illustrated that IT professionals are something of an oxymoron.  The best and brightest computer geeks don't work as IT people in a law firm other small company.  This experience will be repeated later on another law firm, where our IT professional downloaded a virus into the company server and crashed the entire system for several days.

Cloud computing takes this "thin client model" to the next level - putting data and programs on the Internet, instead of a local server.  It also is nothing new, as it's been around for years and is only just now taking off, mostly for financial reasons not technical ones.  The idea is really simple - put all your data and operating programs on the internet and then access them through any type of device.

There are many advantages to this architecture.  For starters, you can be device agnostic in that any device that interfaces with the internet can operate these programs and access data usually through a web browser or app or some other interface.  Thus, you can access your data from a smartphone, tablet, laptop or PC - or even a Mac or iPhone.  You are less bound to formats and brand-names and operating systems.

Second, your data is always backed up on the Internet so you don't have to worry about losing data - at least in theory - and your data is accessible anywhere.  The only downside to this is if the server holding your data in the cloud crashes and the people who are managing your data for you don't have it properly backed up or their backup server crashes, well, you are up the creek.

A third advantage, which is particularly useful for small companies, is that it takes a lot of your IT work and puts it up onto the cloud.  Your application software that you use is constantly being updated and revised by the cloud provider, so you don't have to worry about reinstalling software, updating software, and otherwise revising or re-configuring it.  Your IT professional (if you even have one) need worry only about the computers being plugged in and operating.  The rest is offloaded to a remote location.

Of course, all of this comes at a cost - and that's the reason why cloud computing has become more popular as of late - with the companies that provide it.  The idea is that instead of buying software and owning it and operating independently of any computer company, you instead rent your software and data space from a company like Google or Microsoft and pay them a monthly fee for the privilege of using your own computer.

Again, for a large corporation, this may pass the cost-benefit test.  The cost of maintaining your own IT department, purchasing copies of software and installing the software and backing up your data may be rather steep.  Not only that, but traditionally purchased software was amoritized over a number of years, where is cloud computing charges can be expensed out for taxes - although today I imagine software is a expensed out as much anything else.

For most corporations, anything that is outside their primary area of expertise is just a drag on the company and it distraction from the business at hand.  If you are making widgets you want to concentrate on making widgets as cheaply and as fast as possible.  You don't want to concentrate on operating a computer network or upgrading software or doing any of those sort of things, as they are just overhead items and distractions.

So yes, for large corporations or even small companies, maybe this cloud computing idea makes sense.  Rather than buy a copy of Word, you just rent it online and your rent your space in the cloud to store all your documents.  Basically you're taking your company server and pushing it up onto the internet and letting somebody else deal with it.

For the individual, however, it may not be such a great deal.  For example, I run Windows 7 Ultimate on my computers, which seems to be very stable and copies the software can be purchased inexpensively on the internet - even legitimate copies.  Also data storage is not really an issue as I have over three terabytes of storage space, which is not expensive to buy.  A one terabyte hard drive, on once an unthinkable amount of data (at least when I was a kid) is now only about $100 or so.  Most of the three terabytes of data storage I have is duplicate, triplicate, quadruplicate, or more copies of my work data as well as videos, photographs, and music files.  I have more storage space than I know what to do with.  I'm not sure that putting it on the cloud would be of any use to me.

There is also the issue of security.  I have patent files for clients some of them dealing with very high technology applications.  If I put these up on the cloud, for example on Google Drive, what guarantee do I have that someone cannot have access to these files or read them?  In fact, it may be possible that Google does look at some of this data for keywords to determine what I'm interested in an order to advertise to me (they just stopped doing this today, with our e-mails!).  For a small users like myself, they offer free drive space in the cloud and they must have to pay for that space somehow.  Google is an advertising company that sells demographic data.   Nothing is free.

Whenever some tech company or online website offers you something for free bear in mind it isn't really free.  Nothing is free.  They are trying to make money off you somehow, usually by advertising to you and harvesting your demographic data.   They also hope you will pay for a premium subscription service as well.   Such as.... cloud computing, for example.

Of course, the software companies are now pushing this technology on the people whether they want it or not.  If you want to buy a copy of Microsoft Word, they would rather you rent a copy in the cloud rather than purchase the software as we did in the past.  Similarly when you open a document on your smartphone or even on the internet, Google helpfully offers to open it in the cloud for you and store it there.  Even Adobe is apparently getting into the racket, renting out software rather than selling it, and making this appear to be the only option that people have.  You actually can still buy a copy of the software for over $400, but at that price, most people chose to rent, instead.

For the software companies, it is a dream scenario.  As you can imagine it's very frustrating if you work at a software company and you write a really good piece of software that is so good that people feel no need to replace it.  Once everybody has a copy, your sales plummet and in fact it gets more and more expensive to do business as people are calling up with customer service issues but are not buying new copies.  You can actually end up losing money over time supporting older software. This is why Microsoft and others cut off support after limited number of years, increasingly a very, very limited number of years.

But with cloud computing, if you're renting the software to people, your income stream is based on the number of users, rather than the numbers of copies sold.  So if you have a user who uses your software for 10 years you collect 10 years worth of revenue from him.  Under the old model, you sold him a copy of the software and you collected from him once.   Many users might use the software for ten years or more - or sell it to a 3rd party when they upgrade - a revenue stream you don't get to see.

I'm still using word 2000 which is now a feisty 17 years old.  It still prepares basic business letters other documents perfectly fine, though.  And that's the problem.  There really is no reason to upgrade to new software when the old software works just fine.  Bill Gates despises me.

So is this cloud computing the "Next Big Thing"?  I'm not so sure.  I think for a lot of enterprise solutions, big companies, and even medium size and small companies, the idea of renting software may be appealing.  So long as there is competition in the marketplace, prices will remain competitive.  However since Microsoft Word sort of dominates the market for word processing, they can basically charge whatever they want for their software and people likely won't switch to other alternatives.

Open Office will work with Microsoft documents, although my understanding it that the company "supporting" it  has been sold once already.  I went to download a copy recently, and it tried to download a lot of additional junkware along with a copy of Open Office.  I don't actually use the program so much as I use it to open .docx documents and quickly convert them to .doc documents and then edit those in Word 2000.

I suppose many younger people today probably think this cloud computing is a really cool deal, is it floats a lot of the data and software requirements into the cloud and, of course, is trendy and new.  However coming from the era where I learned to program Fortran on IBM Punch Cards and dicked around with Digital PDP-8's and PDP-11s in high school, the liberation of the personal computer has a profound and deep meaning for me.

When the personal computer came out, it was a very liberating experience.  For the first time in my life I owned a computer lock, stock and barrel.  It was mine, I didn't need permission to use it, and I didn't have to pay anybody to program it for me.  It was the anti-mainframe computer in an IBM era, and none of us in that era were very fond of IBM and its monopoly practices.  We wanted to liberate the computer for everyone and break free of any monopolistic bonds or corporate oppression.

Perhaps the younger generation today doesn't feel that way, having not gone through that experience. Today they grow up with a plethora of computing devices including a smartphone which is almost placed in their hand at birth.  They give little thought to the companies that control these devices, how they control our data, and how they harvest our data and use it to manipulate and control us.

Maybe to them, cloud computing seems like an interesting thing that has some practical advantages over traditional methods. To me it seems like another opportunity for Microsoft and Apple and Google to put their hand on my wallet or at the very least listen in to my conversations and data and use that to market and manipulate me.

This is why I'm glad going to be retiring from the patent business.   Very soon now I will no longer need to use any of this software, other than occasionally crank up my ancient version of Word to generate a document or use my equally ancient version of QuickBooks to balance my checkbook.  And as my life and finances get simpler and simpler over time, my need to use these things may be less and less.

But for younger people, it is still a conundrum.  Do you pay Microsoft $10 a month in order to use Word (or wherever it is they charge)?  Or do you bite the bullet and use some other alternative software - or is there any alternative software?

Like I said there are alternatives out there that are often free or inexpensive.  OpenOffice can be downloaded and it will perform most of the functions of Microsoft Office at no charge.  This has require a modicum of talent for you to install the software however.  Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional is available online freely and performs most of the functions of Adobe Acrobat.   There are also free 3rd party readers and the like which can be used (Adobe Reader has turned into a computer locking turd of a program in its last iteration).

Older versions of QuickBooks work very well, although they're not compatible with newer versions if you're interfacing with your accountant (and why this is so, well, you guess).  From what I understand QuickBooks is also gone to a subscription model, at least for the "enterprise" version, with everything in the cloud, asking you to pay a certain amount per month rather than a fee for one-time purchase of the software.

As for cloud storage, I have experimented with both Google and Microsoft Hotmail storage features, with some success.  However I was never comfortable with where my data was located or how the data was uploaded and stored.  It seem like a pretty clunky solution to a problem that was really not very well defined.

The big problem I think for the individual is subscription fatigue.  If you were paying so many dollars a month for Microsoft Word, so many for Adobe, so many for QuickBooks, eventually the subscription costs add up to tens of dollars or maybe even hundreds of dollars a month, which is an awful lot of money.  It's like having another cable and cell phone bill on top of your cable and cell phone bill.  People go broke not with huge purchases but a little bit at a time.  And for the middle class American, so many "small" subscription fees and designer coffees chisel away at our wealth.

But I suppose, if these companies get too greedy with their subscription fees, someone will come along with an alternative and offered to the public for less money.  But we'll have to wait and see.  No doubt these companies will try to use proprietary formats, patents and other intellectual property, as well as other means to try to lock in their clients to their particular play pen or ecosystem, much as Apple tries to lock their customers in today.

For myself, I'm not so sure I'm eager to get involved in cloud computing.

And oh by the way, I forgot to mention the most obvious flaw with cloud computing:  What happens when you are outside the range of internet service?  Not only will your applications not work, you won't have access to your data.  Your smartphone, tablet, and laptop will turn into bricks, much as the "Thin Client" computers did at the law firm, when the server crashed.

UPDATE:  A reader writes with the following helpful links:

LibreOffice is what you want not OpenOffice.

It's my understanding most of the Oo developers went there as Oo dissolved.

There is free, stripped down, "cloud" version of MS Office:

and its Google equivalent:

Sign in with a Microsoft or Google account

All storage providers look at you data, for reasons good and bad.
The only one that doesn't is Spider Oak.

* * *

Myself,  I will stick with my current programs.  You will pry my "install" DVD-ROMS out of my cold, dead, hands.  And many of these older programs are still available on eBay.  It took me over two decades to learn MS-Word, I ain't starting over at this point in my life.

Funny how the DVD is considered "old tech" these days.  Geez, I remember when CDs first came out, and we thought it was science fiction!   All that data!  On one little shiny disc!

P.S. - the blogger website is basically a simplified HTML word processor.   It illustrates how you can put almost any program on the "web" and run it as a website.   No longer does a "program" need to run on a particular O/S.   Ironically, I wonder if many of the servers running these online versions of software are running.....UNIX.   Maybe!

UPDATE:   DropBox is talking about doing an IPO.  Here we go again.   I am only aware of this company because their "app" came pre-installed on my Samsung Galaxy (I never use it).   DropBox got out of the "free" storage for civilians business as Google and Microsoft have pretty much swallowed that up.   Instead, they are pushing business solutions and smart-sync of local devices with the cloud - and yes, I wrote Patents on that stuff decades ago.   Good Luck DropBox!