Monday, January 27, 2014

Under the Cloud

The business world is almost as fad-ridden as the education world, and one of the hot words in the last few years is "cloud" as in "I'll get it from the cloud," or "We put all our data on the cloud."  In this sense, the word means a set of Internet servers where your important data is archived so that it is accessible from anywhere that has an Internet connection.  The concept is increasingly vital to commercial and institutional users worldwide, and makes sense in that context.  But as Scientific American columnist David Pogue warns in the February issue, Apple and Microsoft are taking not-so-subtle steps to force many individual users of their products onto the cloud.  And I doubt that anyone reading this column can avoid using Apple and Microsoft products without a lot of inconvenience. 

The situation, as I understand it, is basically this:  suppose you have data that needs continual updating on your portable gizmo (which can be an iPad, an iPhone, a BlackBerry, one of those Android things, or you name it), and you'd also like the same version of the same data on your laptop.  In the old days, whenever you made changes on your calendar, for example, you would then physically plug your portable device through a USB cable or whatnot into your laptop and tell it to sync.  That way, your laptop calendar would agree with your handheld thingy's calendar and vice versa, and you wouldn't find yourself at Aunt Mimi's when you were supposed to be having your teeth cleaned.  So far, so good.

Then the number of handheld devices proliferated, and so did their operating systems, and so did the ways you can have laptops and towers talk with portable systems (wireless, IR, Bluetooth, etc.), and at least according to the manufacturers and their unofficial representatives, it just got to be too hard to come up with proprietary software to sync absolutely every portable thingamajig with each operating system for all the popular computers.  So they just said forget it:  the real data will sit on the cloud, where we can keep track of it, and then all we have to do is make sure that every piece of hardware (portable or not) can keep in touch with the cloud.  And that solved the problem. . . .

But if you were used to firing up your old laptop and plugging it into your BlackBerry that you've had since 2003, and you are dead-set against keeping your data in a place that you know not where and you know not when it might go down, you are now out in the cold and under the cloud, so to speak.  According to Mr. Pogue, the latest operating systems from both Apple and Microsoft either don't allow you to do hard-wired transfers without involving the cloud, or make it so hard to do that you almost have to get a networking certificate from Microsoft to know how to do it. A discussion thread on an Apple forum on exactly this topic has been going on since last October, and has accumulated 150 pages of comments.  So there are more than a few people upset about this.

Call me Amish, but it doesn't affect me because my form of a BlackBerry is a three-by-five card.  Or rather, many three-by-five cards.  I suppose if you took all the three-by-five cards I've used in the last decade and piled them up, they would make a stack high enough to fall over and form the kind of mess my desk looks like some days.  In fact, that may be why. . . anyway, somehow I have survived thirty years of an occasionally intense professional life with nothing more advanced than a laptop or two and a mobile phone that you still have to use the numeric keypad for to send a text.  It's so annoying to do it that way that I hardly ever send texts, which is all right by me. 

But seriously, this specific issue is an example of a more general trend that organizations are following: a move toward exerting increasing control of any computer that is connected to one of their networks.  For example, I spend some time at the University of Texas at Austin.  If I was using a University-provided laptop (which I'm not, as it turns out), I would now have to make sure that all the data on it was encrypted in accordance with a University-provided type of encryption software so that if it happens to get stolen, the thieves can't run off with University data.  That makes sense from a liability and security point of view—I have blogged on numerous scandals and crimes that happened when someone took home a laptop full of supposedly secure data—but it represents another intrusion, if you will, into a space that was formerly rather private. 

Of course, if the University owns the laptop, they get to say what you can and can't do with it.  Privately owned computers connected to privately rented networks are another matter, but then you still have to deal with Apple or Microsoft, and their pressure to keep your stuff on the cloud will prove irresistible.  The Star Trek Borg, a race of cybernetic beings, liked to say "resistance is futile," but that was only a TV show.   

Personally, I don't see any real harm in letting Microsoft know the details of my next dental appointment.  And yes, those massive servers go down from time to time, but then so does your laptop.  I admit that I would feel a certain kind of existential queasiness in entrusting the only record of my professional schedule to some ethereal system that is everywhere and nowhere, rather than having it in a tangible, solid form on pieces of paper in my appointment calendar in my briefcase.  (Yes, I do that the old-fashioned way too.)  Maybe people living in the 1850s felt the same way about the newfangled electromagnetic telegrams, and didn't really trust them on an instinctive level as much as they would trust a letter written by the hand of a friend they knew.  But they got used to trusting telegrams, and I suppose we will get used to trusting the cloud, as long as our trust is not abused. 

Sources:  The online version of David Pogue's article "The Curse of the Cloud" can be found at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on BlackBerry and Borg (Star Trek). 

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