Up in the clouds

Do you remember the buzz around disposable cameras? For a short while it seemed like this was going to be the future for holiday snaps – a saggy cardboard box with a squishy, bendy shutter release, lens like a chunk of bottle glass from a shingly beach, and a wind-on lever loud enough to stop a wedding service in a Wren church. Processing and print costs included in the price and a total cost of less than a tenner. Rubbish photo quality, zero pride in purchase, and zero brand loyalty (who even know what brand it was?). The disposable was to photography what the flip-flop is to footwear.

Up in the clouds

Disposables are still around nowadays of course, but their first appearance marked a low ebb in the photography business, that dead period where photography entered a no-man’s land, where professional kit was too hard to use and hobbyist kit lacked satisfactory performance – camera manufacturers and retailers thrashed around looking for a way to persuade consumers to spend a bit more money on their snaps. They were saved by the coming of the digital camera. People felt they’d much rather shell out £500 for a device that saves pictures onto a floppy disk than a £5 device that needs to be sealed in an envelope and dropped in a mail box before you can see your efforts.

As you may well be gathering from this idiosyncratic start to my column, I believe we’re at a similar dead-end in the network business today – except that I’m still trying to figure out what our equivalent saviour might be in 2009. We see a business in which drive sizes have expanded so far that the old problem of space management has been replaced by the even tougher problem of duplication management. Worse still, the misguided reverence with which centralised storage is regarded has given rise to the nightmarish idea of Cloud computing, where all your stuff is kept on remote devices so scattered and so numerous that they might just as well be random droplets of water.

I don’t object to this analogy and buzzword explosion too much, because I think that at least they’ve chosen the right substance. H2O is indeed a perfectly apposite choice, because when it isn’t a cloud and not a liquid it becomes an iceberg, and that’s a far better model for the reality of Cloud computing: it’s hardware rather than software (which sucks up amps and pumps out watts); after you upload information to the Cloud then, like an iceberg, you’re unable to see how large it is, who else is inside it, or what’s really going on with your stuff.

It strikes me as the highest kind of irony for the techno-optimists to deliver an amorphous, open-computing resource with a wholly invisible interior and then claim this as an advance, given that 2008 has been the “Year of Data Loss”. Practically every known type of portable storage device has appeared in the news as being implicated in some terrifyingly sloppy act of data exposure or another. If my Government Gateway password is among those found on a USB stick in a taxi, I can categorically state that when someone uses it to log in, that won’t be me because I forgot it about two years ago.

As you might have gathered, I’m not a fan of computing in the Cloud. The whole concept strikes me as a refuge for those who don’t want to think about the real value or the real cost of the work they do on their computer (out there in Client world), as well as an ideally camouflaged hiding place for those who want to charge for a Rolls-Royce while driving around in a Yugo (deep inside the Cloud where you can’t see them).

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