There were couple of interesting articles in the New York Times recently about how Google is challenging Microsoft. One was a personal account of how the writer declined to buy a copy of Microsoft Word when she bought her last computer and instead has used Google's free on-line word processor ever since. The other article was a long analysis of how Google's “cloud computing” vision may be changing where our computing lives are going. The “cloud” is a place where I've been living and working for a good year now and it's made me so much more efficient and has eliminated so much of the frustration I felt before from computing. I invite you to try the cloud, too!
Do you, like most of us, have to work on your documents both at home and at work or even more locations? Can you imagine having all of your documents right in front of you whatever computer you're sitting in front of? Can you imagine not having to carry around disks or thumb drives, not having to email files to yourself, not having to constantly wonder what folder or hard drive you saved that file on? That's what cloud computing does for you.
The reason it's called cloud computing is that the bulk of the work of the computer, including file storage, no longer happens on the computer in front of you – it happens out in the cloud. That is, out in some data center somewhere that you're connected to via the Internet. You don't need to know where this data center is. And it might very likely not even be in one place. Software like Google's distributes the computing work seamlessly wherever its data servers happen to have capacity at the moment. And there's no center or hub to the system, another reason it's like a cloud. What that decentralization means is that – as it is with the Internet itself – it's almost impossible for the whole network to fail. Or, at the very least, the chance of it failing is infinitely smaller than the risk of your computer's hard drive crashing (along with all the files you have on it) at any time.
The best part of the cloud that Google has made available so far is Google Docs, its free word processing program that works right through your Web browser (even Microsoft's Internet Explorer). I use it for almost everything that I do. When I want to write a new document, I just open up a new one and start writing right away. I don't have to worry – as I always had to do with MS Word – about where I'm going to save it so I can find it again. When I look in my Google Docs directory next time, I know it will be sitting there right on top of the list (the list is organized in the order of the files you last worked on). And if I want to find it again months later, Google Docs has a great search feature that blows away anything MS Word can do – it searches the text in your files in the same efficient and intelligent way that Google's Web search looks through the Internet. And I don't even ever think of saving a file. Google Docs just does it for me all the time (saving all of my old versions in case I want to look back at something I did before).
In addition to Google Docs, Google's free online applications include a spreadsheet (think MS Excel ) and a presentation program (think MS PowerPoint ). They all work great and have simple and intuitive interfaces (you don't need to be looking through a manual – nor will you have to take hours-long classes – to learn to use these programs).
One thing that's fascinating to me about this move to cloud computing is its “back to the future” quality. When I was working in the newspaper business, we had an incredibly excellent mainframe-based computer system that had many of the features just now becoming widely available in Google's products. Those mainframe programs, however, were long ago displaced by PCs. There are many reasons for the PC displacing those older systems, but one was that the programs that Microsoft wrote for those PCs could do a lot of things – especially in terms of manipulating exactly how things you created appeared physically on paper or on other computer screens – that the mainframe systems just couldn't do.
Google's products have this same downside – Google Docs, for example, has none of the sophisticated desktop publishing features of MS Word. But the difference between the old mainframe systems and what Google offers today is that Google's applications actually run on your PC (or Mac). That means if you need desktop publishing you can “bail out” of Google Docs and use your PC for just that one more demanding project.
Google understands this as part of a 90-10 kind of approach – one where 90% of your work gets done with “cloud” software and the other (highly specialized, computer-hungery work requiring having direct access to a hard drive, etc) gets done on your PC itself with “old-fashioned” programs like MS Word.
Another downside of Google Docs, at least for now, is that it you have to be connected to the Internet to use it. In fact, as I started to write this particular post you're reading, I was not connected to the Internet. But, even so, I had not “bailed out” to MS Word to write this. Instead, I was using Sun Microsystems' excellent StarOffice package (an alternative to MS Office ), which is currently available for a free download from Google as part of Google Pack.
Why do I care so much about this to write about it? Well, one reason is that I have always seen the computer as a potentially revolutionary phenomenon – something that has the potential to be a force for human freedom and the expression of the human spirit. Back in the 1980s the personal computer was still a very new device as was the desktop publishing it was starting to make possible. Here in the States, desktop publishing was a godsend for many small businesses. But it had even more profound implications in the Communist world where it threatened to put an end to one of the most powerful tools that totalitarian system had for maintaining its tyranny – the monopoly the Communist party had over the printing press. What the intelligentsia of the Soviet Union saw happening with computing in the West helped make clear that Communism's days were numbered and helped put the forces together that made possible what had once seemed impossible – the Soviet Union deciding on its own to dismantle its Communist system and to tear down the Berlin Wall.
It was a revolution. The changes in information technology made it possible. That was the day of the personal computer. Now is the day – and revolution – of the cloud.