Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mobile Devices and the cloud

I've been talking about mobile devices for a year and a half and now the discussion is shifting to cloud computing. What is the cloud and how are the two subjects related? First, cloud computing means using computers on the Internet to store and process information which may have been handled by local computers in the past. The basic concept has been around for a long time - anyone remember time sharing? - but it has evolved into a very complex and powerful technology.

Second, the cloud is a natural extension of mobile devices since they do not have huge hard drives or powerful processors. And, since they are mobile, they are not typically attached to a local computer. Anyone with a Netflix account as seen an indication of this trend - you can receive a DVD or have the video streamed (from the cloud) to your computer or an Internet connected set top box such as Roku, Google TV or Apple TV.

The power and complexity of PCs has far outgrown the needs of most people so the combination of small mobile devices combined with available cloud processing and storage is very attractive.

Google has developed a combination browser/operating system called Chrome (not to be confused with the Chrome Web Browser) that presumes everything will be done over the Internet. Chrome computers that effectively operate like a browser for all services have just been released. While the Apple and Google approaches are not directly comparable, they both rely on the cloud. I'm thrilled that these companies do not merely copy what the other has done.

Of course you can't talk about electronics without discussing music. Google will store your music in the cloud and allow you to play it on any device. The catch is you have to upload it before you can do this - a process that could take a long time for someone with thousands of songs. Apple has an agreement with the four major music companies that allows you to stream the songs you own from the new Apple iCloud without first uploading your copies.

In a major change, you will now be able to buy, setup and update an iPad, iPhone or iPod without using a PC or Mac. The computer will no longer be the center of your computer environment: it will just be another device. The automatic backup as well as software purchasing and updating directly over the Internet is a significant change for Apple users. In a related development, the new Apple OS Lion will only be available over the Internet. The features of Apple's MobileMe service will be incorporated into iCloud and MobileMe will be discontinued in 2012.

Questions and Concerns
As with any new technology there are significant issues to address and you have the right to be skeptical at this stage.
Availability - High speed Internet access is not available everywhere and few cloud services will work over dial up. There is a major project underway to increase wi-fi coverage much like cities are already doing. it will be some time before this effort pays off. Concerns exist about interference of this system with GPS which is just being rolled out for airline navigation.
Speed - Even some "high speed" connections can be slow when transferring large files. When these connections are shared among several devices in a home, the problem is worse. Cloud computing as described by Apple includes continuous backup storage and streaming of all types of content.
Charges - There is no question we will pay higher fees to the telephone and cable companies that provide our data services. I will not go into the cost/benefit discussion of the cloud versus the "old" approach we've all been accustomed to. It would be a long discussion and since the cloud appears inevitable - a waste of time.
Reliability - Both Google and Apple foresee most of your information - documents, photos, etc. - being stored in the cloud. The obvious question is will the services be safe and reliable or will you have to keep your own copies as well? There will certainly be cases where duplicate copies are necessary - if you are not going to be on the Internet for a while - but for the most part they will be considered safe. We've been relying on banks and other businesses to keep accurate records for years with no idea where or how they do it. The cloud should be no different if it is to succeed.