A Walk in the Cloud
There's a revolution in the air. Literally. As we upload our lives into cyberspace, we're finally unleashing the true power of the internet. It's the sort of thing science fiction has been grappling with for decades - and now it's coming true.
There's a scene some way into The Matrix in which Keanu Reeves wakes to find himself soaking in a bath of pink, primeval ooze, a USB jack plugged into the back of his head. He soon learns from Laurence Fishburne that the life he believes he's been living was a computer-generated mirage; that his memories, his friends, his office, were nothing but digital constructs.
In the cold light of the late Noughties, The Matrix may seem dated. Yet, as each day passes, we move closer to fulfilling that film's prophecies - uploading our work, our social lives, our very personalities, to the web. Thankfully, this real-life online world to which most of us will soon belong has a more benevolent name than the science-fictional Matrix. It's called "the Cloud".
When you first used the internet, it was probably just a few costly seconds of dial-up time to send an email. Soon after that, however, you set up your Hotmail account and started Googling. By the time broadband became standard, you'd begun banking and shopping online. Before long, you were social networking and downloading music, referencing and contributing to wiki-this and wiki-that - enjoying the power of collective thinking and shared resources that the internet has unleashed.
The Cloud is the logical next step, a new web era in which all of our personal data storage, and all of our computing activity - indeed, almost any activity that doesn't involve breathing or eating - is undertaken online.
In a world blanketed by Wi-Fi, where we all carry a computer in our pockets, working, gaming, making friends, spending and investing, collecting and sharing snapshots, listening to music, watching movies and television, reading books and newspapers like this one - all of it will become part of Cloud-living.
Late last month, at Microsoft's annual Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, the company's chief software architect, Ray Ozzie, unveiled "Windows Azure", his team's first major contribution to Cloud computing. Simply put, Azure will be a Windows operating system (complete with Microsoft Office programs such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint) that operates not from a hard drive, but over the internet.
"Microsoft has put considerable effort into this," says Steven Levy, a technology expert and senior writer at Wired magazine. "Operating systems are the centre of their business, so one would assume that they have come up with something pretty sophisticated."
Ozzie knows, however, that Microsoft has some catching up to do in the race to the Cloud if it is to compete with its rival computing giants.
In early September, Google staked its claim to the Cloud with the launch of Google Chrome, the internet frontrunner's first web-browser. While Google may have leased a lot of people's homepages for years, it hasn't owned the architecture, the walls within which we go about our online business: shopping, surfing, social networking, and so on. In the browser department, Microsoft's Internet Explorer has long been the market leader, adept as it is at the administration of traditional internet usage.
However, those tasks we always performed on our desktops, pre-Wi-Fi - like composing emails, creating spreadsheets, or managing databases - can now, with updated tools, also be executed in the Cloud.
Chrome's design is intended to imitate a conventional computer desktop as closely as possible, to disguise the fact that we are browsing at all, to drag users off the solid ground of their hard drives and into the Cloud, where Google (so far) rules.
The name "Chrome" comes from the term denoting the items that border a browser window - the bookmarks, the toolbars, the search boxes. Ironically, these are the very items Google has stripped back to make its browser as unintrusive as possible.
Meanwhile, the company has been fast developing its online software programs, in the hope of leading the charge when each of us begins to use web-based applications through Chrome, saving our files not to a hard disk, but to the great big server in the sky.
Already, countless users are signed in not only to Gmail, but also to Google Apps (Google's online applications suite), to iGoogle and to Google Gears, the company's intertwined collection of Cloud-based tools. This is the cadre of software with which Microsoft's Azure applications will have to contend.
Theoretically, there are no limits on the data the Cloud could store and process. "It's tough to rule the Cloud," explains Levy, "because the Cloud, in its broadest sense, is the internet. There's only a limited number of big companies, with multiple data centres, that will be able to compete by hosting a lot of the services and applications that run on the internet rather than on your computer: Microsoft, Google, Amazon [which has offered Cloud storage through its 'Amazon S3' service since 2006], and Apple.
Google has the most advanced data centres, so they're probably in the best position to compete in the Cloud."
According to Randall Stross, author of Planet Google: How One Company Is Transforming Our Lives: "The main benefit of the Cloud for individuals is the convenience of being able to get at your stuff wherever you are, with whatever kind of computer device is handiest. You won't have to keep things in synch. 'I edited that at the office, but I didn't bring a copy home with me' - that kind of headache will go away."
The Cloud is convenient for businesses, too, which will find that it costs less to pay Google or Microsoft a subscription for software services and data storage than it does to update Office every couple of years and maintain their own servers and IT departments somewhere in their basements. Four years from now, if enough companies catch on, the Cloud computing market will be worth more than £26bn, according to research firm IDC.
"On the other hand, it will introduce new problems," Stross continues. "A ot of people have experienced serious Gmail problems recently. They couldn't get into their accounts.
If there are any outages, the very things that made it so convenient will become very disruptive to your life. You won't have backup copies, and you will have become accustomed to the Cloud being available. So what happens when you can't reach the Cloud?"
There's a scene towards the end of 2010, that most inferior of sci-fi sequels, in which Roy Scheider and his fellow planetary explorers discover an endless stream of Kubrick and Clarke's iconic monoliths - from the classic original 2001: A Space Odyssey - flooding from the gaseous clouds of Europa. Thanks to the Apple chief executive, Steve Jobs, Earth may soon resemble Jupiter's moon, orbited by an infinite number of alluring black rectangles. But, rather than the cosmic, life-generating beings of science fiction, these iconic real-world objects are flash drives sheathed in plastic: they're called iPhones.
When Jobs debuted the Macbook Air in his keynote speech at the MacWorld conference in January, it was derided: a computer with only 2GB of memory, designed for a broadband world where storage was separate from the device, the Air is a Cloud computer that's just a little too far ahead of its time. In July, at its Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple unveiled MobileMe, its own suite of online applications that allows users to remotely synchronise their calendars, emails, addresses and data storage across their Mac devices - desktop, laptop, iPhone. MobileMe's logo, helpfully, is a puffy white cloud. For two disastrous weeks following its launch, however, 20,000 users were unable to access their email via MobileMe - offering a prophetic glimpse of Cloud-life's downside.
Yet the iPhone - in the cheaper, more powerful 3G incarnation Apple loosed on the market in the same week as MobileMe - is fast becoming the prototype for a future breed of hand-held computers. Despite being described as a phone by the famously controlling Jobs, it soon became clear that the iPhone was in fact a computer with an operating system as powerful as its desktop cousins - and one that could be similarly personalised, flooded with our favourite programs. "Previously phones weren't capable of running really great internet software," says Levy. "The iPhone is pioneering, in that it opened the floodgates for the development of mobile applications."
Apple may dominate hardware, as Google dominates the net and Microsoft still dominates software, but Google's answer to the iPhone will also give its competitors pause. The Google Android phone uses a software platform that the company last month opened up for public consumption - freeing its source code to allow amateur developers everywhere to start building their own Android applications. Their aim is to make Android the Windows of the hand-held computing era - the market-leading operating system for the Cloud.
Meanwhile, in another of Google's secret departments, a second world - named Google Earth - is being built, for which the hand-held computer will be a perfect compass. Most US cities are now available online in a panoramic, 3D, virtual version as part of the Google Street View project, and London isn't far behind - Google's camera cars have already been spotted on our capital's streets. There will soon be a complete digital Earth online, which, if we have an iPhone or Google-phone with GPS, will allow us to filter the real world into its most useful functions. Where, we might ask it, is the nearest bookstore, and does it stock Sartre? Are there any good gigs on in the area this evening, and can I read some reviews of the bands? Where can I get a coffee right this second, and how much will it cost me?
Whichever company prevails, we'll all soon be carrying our own digital footprints around in our pockets, miniature computers hooked up to our personal clouds of online data. And even the problem of occasional Wi-Fi outages is in the process of being solved. "We're only seeing the beginnings of how online applications are going to work in a world where most of the time you're online, but sometimes you're on a plane or somewhere without internet access," says Wired's Levy. "A good example of a 'client application' is iTunes, something that lives on your computer but works hand-in-hand with an internet component, so is sort of a hybrid."
Music, indeed, could be one of the very first things to be elevated wholesale to the Cloud. Spotify, an internet music service launched in Europe on 7 October and funded by advertising and subscription fees, allows its users to create perfectly streamed playlists of almost any tracks they can name and play them at will before sharing them with their friends. Last.fm, the internet radio service that constructs a personalised radio station based on its analysis of your iTunes library, already has a popular iPhone application. If the iPhone and Google-phone allow their owners to listen not only to their own music libraries but to any music at all via the Cloud, they will quickly make that old-fashioned data-storing device, the iPod, redundant.
From our handsets, we will have access to our photos via Flickr or its imitators, to our work documents and emails, to our social networks, and to our favourite browser bookmarks. We will be followed around by the digital versions of ourselves, hovering in the ether. What are our personalities, after all? The sum of our tastes and interests, our educations, our health records, our looks, our circle of friends?
There's a scene midway through Minority Report in which Tom Cruise is assaulted from all sides by audiovisual advertising hoardings calling the name of his character, enticing him personally to buy a Lexus, a Guinness, a holiday. The Cloud computer that looms over this future Earth knows who he is, it knows where he is, and it's out to get him. A similar sense of insecurity, and the invasion of our personal space by targeted advertising, is the logical conclusion for Cloud computing, the trade-off for signing our lives over to the web.
Gmail has already mastered the art of the targeted ad. "The best advertisement goes only to those people who are going to be receptive, which is why search advertising has been so successful," Stross explains. "The ideal ad in the minds of advertisers is a customised message for an audience of one. And Google's message to us, its user, is, 'That's what you want, too. You don't want to be bothered by a dog-food commercial if you don't have a dog. If you're going on a hike and you're emailing someone about your plans, don't you want to see ads for hiking boots?'
"Tying the ads to the content of the emails was an innovation. Hotmail and Yahoo both had ads, but they were just banner ads broadcast to whomever. As users, we must decide: do we want cruder forms of broadcast advertising, or do we want it more targeted? Or do we want to pay for the privilege of not being irritated by advertising [which Google also offers]?"
Online, the Facebook generation has no concept of personal space. They post photos of themselves and friends in compromising poses, or tell the world their tastes in film, books or music. There have been stories of wayward Facebook employees entertaining themselves with the private profiles of users. "The young people you hire today," says the Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer, "grow up on MySpace, Facebook and instant messaging. They grow up with a fundamental notion that applications have knowledge of other people... We need to provide fundamental platform operating services that really provide what I might call the social web."
The social web means that, in the Cloud, our digitised data overlaps with that of our friends and colleagues, like connecting neurons in a single, vast mind. Social networking, too, will grow and change in the Cloud. Harnessing the GPS capabilities of the iPhone, developers have created six major location-based social networks with the ability to tell users how far they are from other iPhone owners. Sugartrip, an application being developed for the Google-phone, will measure the driving speed of all its users and monitor traffic flow, allowing them to pick the best route for a journey. It will also, to remain free, use geo-targeted advertising, tailored to the street down which you're driving.
Putting such personal information - where you are, and what you like - in the hands of advertisers and anonymous fellow users might be a troubling thought. So what about the possibility of vast, opaque corporations controlling our Cloud? "One of the biggest concerns is whether Google, even with the best of intentions, can ensure that our personal data doesn't leak," says Stross. "There must be a law in physics that says, 'Put enough data in a container and it will spring a leak.' Many organisations have suffered data leaks, and Google has not yet, but their stock response to any expression of concern is, 'You must trust us, because we know our business fails if we lose your trust, so we have every reason to take good care of your data.'"
Well, that's what an airline would say. It doesn't mean that, in an infinite time-span, catastrophic failures won't occur. Yet perhaps, just as air travel is statistically safer than road, so might storing our data in an online vault be safer than on a nickable laptop. "In theory, there will be nothing tying us to our hard drives in future," says Levy. "People are reluctant to give up the idea that their information is in their possession, but a lot of people, for instance, already bank online. Their financial records are in the Cloud rather than in their filing cabinets."
Stross is less sure. "As long as there are periodic outages (and engineers I speak with say these will always happen), we might simply say, 'Maybe we don't want to centralise all our computing, and maybe the way we do it now - the hybrid model - is the one we should stick with.'
"My last book was about Thomas Edison. In the beginning, electric power was generated on premises. Then we moved to centralised generation. Now, we're moving back away from centralised power generation. Solar panels are a form of re-decentralised power source, on premises. Maybe we shouldn't fully centralise when it comes to information utilities such as Google. Maybe we should stick with what we've got; centralise some, but keep full local capability."
The Wachowski Brothers, writer-directors of The Matrix, owe much (by their own admission) to the work of the French philosopher Rene Descartes, whose theories included the existence of an incorporeal mind, or soul, separate from the physical body. Mind/body dualism was later mocked by Descartes's British rival, Gilbert Ryle, who debunked the notion, naming it "the ghost in the machine".
Google has only just celebrated its 10th birthday. Facebook is four-and-a-half years old, YouTube a mere three. Each is already crucial to our culture. And when did you buy your first mobile phone? For most of us, I'll wager, the answer is barely a decade ago. How soon, then, will science fiction screenwriters have to start inventing new ideas as reality catches up with them? Before we know it, there will be ghosts in the machine. The machine will be the Cloud - and the ghosts will be yours and mine.
MobileMe Many Apple users are already calling MobileMe their "cloud". It's a suite of programs that lets you synchronise each element of your MobileMe account (formerly known as .mac) across other Mac devices. For a subscription fee, you can ensure that whether you're at your desktop or on the move with your iPhone, your calendar, email, address book and all your data are up to date.
Google Chrome Google's first browser, launched in beta last month, is designed for life in the Cloud. It's built to be faster, more secure and more reliable than previous browsers, with a stripped-down appearance for easier use of their online Google applications.
However, the bloggers believe Mozilla's next Firefox offering will be faster.
Photosynth Microsoft's variation on the theme of Google Street View allows users to place their own photos of a physical location on to a three-dimensional online map. When enough amateur snappers have provided images, the map turns into a comprehensive online tour of the place in question. Highlights include St Mark's Square in Venice.
Spotify Launched this month by a Swedish company, Spotify looks and sounds like iTunes but is potentially much more rewarding. Pay either a small fee, or endure less than five minutes of advertising per hour, and you have access to any music you want, streamed from the catalogues of four (and counting) major record labels.
Loopt Facebook for Cloud citizens, Loopt is the most established of the location-based social networking applications for the iPhone. Using GPS, it can tell users where their friends are and offer reviews of local restaurants via Yelp, the user-review site. It has added a matchmaking function that reveals any iPhone-wielding strangers in your vicinity.