Cloud computing: homogeneity or usability?

There’s no denying that cloud computing looks like a phenomena that’s set to grow and grow. The idea of a centralized work (and media) pool that can be dipped into – wherever you are, whatever device you happen to be using – offers real benefits for modern computer users. People these days aren’t tied to one computer. It’s perfectly common to have a main computer or laptop, a netbook, a smartphone; all capable of streaming media, editing documents, posting tweets and blog content. So, the idea of being able to access your music collection, files, and even software, from anywhere are obvious – and that’s the basis of cloud computing.

People are already using this kind of technology, some without even realising it. Take Spotify, a massive, centralized music library. Or YouTube/Vimeo/iPlayer, a source for the bulk of all the video you might ever need to watch. Google Docs (and, soon, Microsoft Office Live), with its streamlined word-processor, spreadsheet and presentation software now means that all your computer needs to allow you to be productive is a web browser. It’s easy to take these advances for granted, but they are, without doubt, the future of the way we use computers.

Charles Leadbeater wrote a persuasive article last week expounding on the need for an open, democratic cloud. Forget the monopolies, he seems to suggest; away begone with hegemonies that may take over cloud computing: “we do not want a digital sky dominated by standardised clouds branded Google and Apple” he says. Instead, according to Leadbeater, we should open up the clouds, make them public, open and shared. In theory, there is nothing wrong with this idea. Open source coding and software is a good idea. Letting users be intergral to their experience can work (Wikipedia, anyone?).

As anyone who has ever used Linux will know, though, open source developments are full of problems. Sure, they’re (normally) perfectly usable, make you feel good about yourself (if you’re of a certain geek persuasion), and let you tailor a system to your needs better. But they go wrong and are sometimes, at a very basic level, deeply incompatible with each other. I’m a supporter of open source platforms, but I see their limitations, too, and the truth is that, for certain applications, standardized systems win out. It’s not that they necessarily  do stuff better, but that they work together, seamlessly. That’s just not true of many open source systems. Integration will be a major factor in helping improve productivity, and in turn making the most of the cloud, so it’s not something we can afford to ignore.

The simple truth is, it would be fantastic if cloud computing was purely democratic. But, I want more than democracy: I want systems that will work together, and work together well. If to achieve that I have to put up with some market domination by Apple or Google? So be it.

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