Cloud Computing For Consumers Makes Me Cringe


The latest buzz in the IT world is all about "cloud computing" and "software as a service" (SaaS). These two related terms refer to doing all your computing via the Internet rather than software locally installed on your computer. But the idea of consumers relying solely on cloud computing makes me cringe. Why?

  1. It's not secure
    Microsoft's upcoming incarnation of Office is an example. Office Web will offer versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint than run directly from the Web. But consumers don't know or care where their applications come from as long as they work. So let's say Jane Consumer wants to open financial data stored in an Excel file. She may not know she's trusting her entire fortune to the cloud (e.g. the Internet). What about a consumer who is working from a home computer, opening confidential documents that ought to be kept within the confines of the corporate network? When you use the Internet, you never know who might be intercepting your information. I wouldn't want my data trusted exclusively to the cloud. I wouldn't even be satisfied with regular local backups. I want my data where I can see it, smell it, touch it, and above all control it.

  2. Your environment can be changed at the whim of developers
    Many web mail users complain to me that they don't like it when their provider changes the look and feel of their email service without notice. Imagine if your word processor and spreadsheet did the same thing. There is something to be said for locally installed software that you can manage as you prefer. Apparently consumers feel the same way, given how many people are still using Windows XP so they don't have to deal with Vista's changed interface. You could also consider the huge number of complaints Microsoft received when they removed the tried-and-true Office menus in favor of Office 2007's (gack) ribbon toolbar.

  3. What if your Internet connection goes down?
    Purveyors of SaaS promise ways to work offline. But how well will it work in reality? Do you really want to count on having a reliable Internet connection just to open a document? What about people in areas who have no access to steady high-speed Internet?

  4. What if your SaaS provider pulls the plug?
    You could wake up one morning, turn on your computer and discover that the software you need to do your work is vanished, gone, kaput. You might even be at the mercy of vendors who change your license agreement, then demand a ransom to keep your software alive. We've already seen that happen with the way some antivirus software vendors gouge you for automatic payments. What if they offer a full-fledged product, then strip the features and start charging extra for them? Or what if your vendor goes under? With locally installed software, at least you still have the software. With SaaS, you might lose the software and your data, too. Worse, what if they decide they now own all your data and can do with it whatever they like?

  5. Advertising and fakes
    How would you like it if you were working on a document and an advertisement interrupted you? Or what if you received a phony popup pretending that your document is corrupt and you suddenly need to buy some nifty (fake) software that will solve the purported problem? This already happens with fake antivirus software. I don't need it in my word processor.

  6. The potential for censorship
    Look at China's attempts to firewall their entire country and crack down on social networking sites. Relying exclusively on cloud computing could, in theory, give a government the ability to silence what it doesn't like. This is the same reason I believe in net neutrality: freedom of expression.
Of course, there may be some advantages to consumer cloud computing.

  1. Ease of use
    Imagine not waiting for your computer to start up or load an application. This would appeal to many consumers. With cloud computing you could access your software as easily as opening a browser window.

  2. Your environment can be changed at the whim of developers
    Yes, I said that above, but it can be a good thing too. You could get new features without having to install new software. It might even be cheaper since you wouldn't have to pay for the CD or DVD. Perhaps you could buy features for short-term use, as you need them. I'll bet people who make casual use of super-expensive software like Adobe Photoshop would enjoy that ability.

  3. Less expensive hardware
    Google's Chrome OS will run at first on netbooks, inexpensive PCs that require only minimal hardware to operate. With cloud computing the vendor takes on the burden of processing power; all you need is a Web browser. Again, this might be highly appealing to consumers and could help bring computing power to those who currently cannot afford it.

  4. Convenience
    Many consumers enjoy being able to work on their documents anywhere, anytime, without the need to log into a home machine or fiddle with a USB drive. That's why Google Docs is popular. People are often willing to trade privacy for convenience.
In my opinion, cloud computing is too new and untested to be forced down consumers' throats just because it's the latest IT craze. But, as an option rather than a requirement, it may provide some advantages. For more, check out this op-ed from the WSJ. Be sure to read the comments, they're interesting!

Posted byTriona Guidry at 9:00 AM  

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