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September 04, 2008

Cloud Computing

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

How much of a cloud-computing person are you?

For those with better things to do than keep up with stupid tech jargon ... "Cloud computing" means "computing on the web" -- using online applications rather than ones located on your own hard drive, and storing your documents on webservers rather than on your own machine.

Although the term "cloud computing" is of fairly recent vintage, you may already do a fair amount of it. If you use webmail, for instance -- Gmail, say, or Yahoo! Mail -- then you're already cloud computing. The email program that you're using, after all, is Google's or Yahoo!'s -- and your actual email isn't stored on your computer, it's on Google's or Yahoo!'s hard drives. If you show off photos on Flickr, Picasa, or Smugmug -- or if you use Picnick or FotoFlexer to tweak your images -- hey, that's cloud computing too.

In any case, cloud computing seems to be today's next great thing. If tech-industry visionaries are to be believed, paradigm-shift time is upon us yet again. Soon we'll all be doing much of our computing directly on the web, using server space and processing power from Google and others. Google's brand-new Chrome web browser is said to represent a big step in the direction of using the web browser as a kind of operating system, with the web itself as the computer.

The two main worries some express about cloud computing:

  • Away time and downtime. If you rely on "the cloud," how can you do any computing at all when you aren't connected to the web? And what happens if the outfits that supply your tools and storage misbehave? These fears aren't unreasonable, it turns out. Both Google and Apple's new MobileMe have demonstrated major vulnerabilities in recent months.

  • Trust. Can you feel certain that the company hosting your documents won't peep at them? Let alone that they won't make legal claims on them? Smart people are scrutinizing those absurd Legal Agreements we all checkbox-off when we sign up for new web services, and they aren't liking what they're finding.

No idea what to make of the above worries myself. Most of the computers I sit down at these days have nice internet connections. And if downtime does occur, I don't much mind taking a break from whatever project I happen to tinkering with. Hey, I'm a retired guy.

As for entrusting my content to a company like Google ... Well, maybe I'm a sucker, but 1) they've got my email already, and 2) I'm such an impractical goof that I can't imagine of what interest my material could possibly be to them.

In fact, as someone who spends significant time on the road, and who flits back and forth between different computers even when at home, I love -- as in l-u-v -- the idea of cloud computing. The less dependent I am on a single computer the better. And if I'm able to get at and do things with my documents from many different computers, I'm even happier.

I opted for webmail long ago and have had no regrets about it. When Google announced Google Docs -- an online word processor / spreadsheet package -- some time back, I was thrilled. I was considerably less thrilled when I gave the product a try, though. Sluggish, ugly, stupidly organized ...

I don't know about you, but I'm often underwhelmed by Google's offerings. That emptiness ... That affectless blue-and-white color scheme ... That zombified typography ... That over-reliance on tags ... After uploading a lot of writing to Google Docs, I lost enthusiasm and decided that I'd wasted my time.

In the last few months, though, I've checked in on Google Docs once again. This time around I've found it to be very useful, if nothing thrilling. Google's techies-with-Alzheimer's design is as blank-and-blah as ever. But the onscreen actions no longer lag a half second behind my typing fingers, and the filing system now offers one capability that I find a huge plus: You can store your files in multiple folders.

An example of how cool this is. Let's say that you've written a blog posting about a movie about gangsters that's set in Chicago. In Google Docs, you don't have to choose one and only one folder to dump that file in; you don't have to choose between "my blogpostings," "movies," "Chicago," and "crime fiction." You can store it (in actual fact, references to it) in all four folders -- which means, as far as I can tell, that you get all the benefits of tagging with none of the annoyances.

A few other cloud-computing options that I've messed with:

  • I've tried and enjoyed Zoho, which offers a suite of online applications, including a word processor that's much more handsome than Google's.
  • I've also liked Adobe's Buzzword, a glitzy-looking and easy to use online word processor.
  • Mashable offers a look at ten online note-taking applications -- I'm trying out Evernote, which so far looks very usable. It's something like an online version of Yojimbo, a Mac program that I'm very fond of.

I may be a strange one, though: I really-really enjoy messing around with tools that want to help you organize your brain. In fact, I spend far more time trying these tools out than I do actually using them to give a little order to my antic thoughts. Well, it's a hobby of a kind, I suppose.

In what ways -- and with which products -- are you cloud computing? Where do you come down on the vital question of tags vs. folders? And has anyone run across a good online service for storing web bookmarks? I can't stand Delicious, or any outfit having anything to do with "social bookmarking," come to think of it. Jesus H. Christ, must everything be turned into a social networking tool?



posted by Michael at September 4, 2008


I used Picnick for photo editing while I was in the Philippines. Picnick is primitive compared to PhotoShop. I didn't take a laptop with me, so I had to use internet cafes. Picnick was just good enough to get the job done.

I took a look at Buzzword. I don't think it will be useful, since I normally carry a laptop with me.

I use my Yahoo e-mail account for storage of basic information, especially passwords. I have so many passwords!

No, I don't believe that anything online is secure. Once those electons pass into the ether, anybody can snatch them.

Do you consider online banking to be cloud computing? I do everything online. Don't even keep paper records any more. Pay bills, do taxes, track investments, etc., all online. I don't even open my paper statements from the bank and Amex. I've got a stack of unopened statements on my desk.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 4, 2008 8:53 AM

I use GMail for taking notes, and not just for email. I send emails/notes to myself that I know I can find, easily, anywhere at anytime.

Being in IT and having changed jobs a few times over the last 10 years, keeping notes on my company-issued laptop is simply not that reliable.

Personally, I am a much bigger fan of directories/folders than tags. I love to "tag" things, as long as I can also put them in an actual directory.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on September 4, 2008 9:19 AM

I've been doing a bit of hanging in the cloud myself for the last couple of years and generally prefer it. As a technology geek and systems administrator, I used to run my own mail system at home, hosted with webmail on my home server, etc, etc. I switch my domain over to Google Apps for Domains a few years back and haven't looked back. I love having access to my e-mail everywhere without having to worry about backing it up, managing spam filters, etc. That being said, I've always been underwhelmed by the offering. Even worse, most of the "tools" produced to work with Gmail (such as taskbar notifyers, etc) don't work with GAfD, despite the fact that it's simply a different URL to my mail. Even Google's own tools completely ignore my mail. Beyond that, I've got access to mail and docs. Google Reader...nope, Google Notebook, nope, Google Video...nope. For all of these, I need to have an actual Gmail address to use, and I can't "merge" it with my domain account. It's just plain stupid. But, there are some solutions to some issues: if you use Firefox, Greasemonkey and Better Gmail (which is just a repackaged Greasemonkey with Gmail scripts) can make the experience a little more pleasant and useable.

On the topic of tags, though: I was resistant at first, too, but I've come to realize that folders are dead. I have a large quantity of bookmarks, I bookmark everything, and using tags at Delicious means I don't have thousands of folders, with hundreds of duplicates....managing bookmarks used to be a nightmare. With the Firefox addin, I've migrated all of my bookmarks to Delicious and when I tag a new one, it automatically goes into the cloud instead of my machine. Glorious! Instead of trying to determine where in the folder structure a bookmark should go, I just type as many tags as I want and I'll be sure to find it easily later. Again, the Firefox extension is invaluable because it'll see what you're typing and fill in the remainder from your tags. So, when I tag something as "Followup", I type "F", "O", "L" and the extension knows that's Followup so I hit tab and it completes the tag. Easy peasy.

Speaking of Followup, I'm often finding things that I either can't or shouldn't view at work. I have my homepage at home and work set to point directly to the URL for my Followup tag at Delicious. When I open my browser, anything I've seen that day that I want to review is the first thing I see when I open my browser. Once I've "followed-up", I remove that tag and it remains in the mix, but out of my immediate sight.

Personally I don't use the social functions of Delicious at all, and it's not necessary that you do. Ignore 'em and just use it for bookmark storage.

Finally, since the birth of my daughter in May, my digital picture collection has grown and grown. Keeping pics synced on my laptop and server at home was always a PITA, and making sure my wife had access to the same sets was always more so. Then, I had to get pics to my pro account. Unlimited storage, so I've been uploading every picture I have to it. I'm using it primarily to share, but it also serves as a nice backup in case of loss. And, as an added bonus, my family now has access to every picture of my daughter without constant "when are we going to get more pictures!?"

As to confidentiality, yes, it is a problem. But, I guess the answer is to simply not put anything out there that you don't want anyone looking at. Or, encrypt it somehow. But, that's a much larger topic. :)

Posted by: Upstate Guy on September 4, 2008 9:33 AM

must everything be turned into a social networking tool?

Yes, the revolution will be friendslisted.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on September 4, 2008 9:37 AM

Foxmarks, a Firefox extension, is good for synchronizing your book marks across multiple computers. Is that what you have in mind when you say "storing web bookmarks"? I, too, hate Delicious.

I too use Gmail and love it. Who wants their hard drive full of thousands of emails? But as for Google Docs and the like, I just can't get into it. I don't like the idea of having to rely on my internet connection to get work done. I do use Mozy, though, to back up my important files off site.

Posted by: Bryan on September 4, 2008 11:21 AM

I do pretty much everything in the cloud, including my actual job when I'm working from home. I'm with ST on the online banking, too. I don't use paper bills anymore.

Has anyone here tried Mintfor financial management? It's an amazingly attractive tool, both visually and practically, and it's really helped me in seeing just where the hell all my money is going. I highly recommend it.

Long live the cloud!

Posted by: JV on September 4, 2008 11:42 AM

As far as offline work on the cloud, you can (sort of) applications that use Google Gears. Google Docs and Wordpress can use it and I believe Gmail will soon. It lets you work on documents offline if no connection is availalbe and then when you go online it reconciles your changes with what's on the server.

It's worked well for me with google docs but I don't know how well it works if you collaborate extensively on your docs.

Posted by: Mark on September 4, 2008 1:11 PM

Yeah it really works well for me too. And I hope Gmail will soon apply this too.

Posted by: San Antonio Lawyer on September 5, 2008 3:27 AM

You ask: "Can you feel certain that the company hosting your documents won't peep at them?"

Count on the fact that they do. I've been in IT for almost two decades now, and every place I've been I know for a fact that the guys who manage the servers and email programs look whenever they feel like it. There is almost no way to prevent it, or prove they did, because they are also in charge of the auditing applications that monitor who does what.

Always assume anything you put on the web is a postcard. Unless you use encryption keys, which are an utter pain. And even then, most of them are broken by the Govt. anyway, and they arouse suspicion.

Posted by: yahmdallah on September 5, 2008 10:48 AM

Security is but something you tell yourself to say that you're in control but in most cases, it is in fact something you've shared or ceded unknowingly. Unlucky you if somebody finds you interesting enough to be worth the trouble messing with.

Big delicious fan here, although it isn't about the network (and I've learned to deal with them as well, nice folks in general)as it is about the primary service of bookmarks available wherever I go and whatever PC I can lay my hands on.


Posted by: friarminor on September 9, 2008 6:51 AM

Apple has recently adopted two of the worst geekwords (or phrases, because they both come with "the" -- What's up with that?): "the Cloud" and "the Enterprise," as in "the iPhone is now perfect for 'the Entereprise.'" What's wrong with "big business" or "big companies"?

Posted by: john on September 14, 2008 6:40 PM

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