Vapourware clouds the issue of thin clients

By Matthew JC Powell on Jul 14, 2011 6:54 AM
Filed under Hardware

As the industry makes another stab at network computing without the PC, Matthew JC Powell ponders whether it’s more of a cycle than a revolution

Back in the day, when a company announced a product that existed only in the form of a press release designed to persuade media and customers not to consider a competitor’s offering just yet – and had no realistic prospect of ever existing in reality – the wags used to refer to such a thing as “vapourware”. Oh, the wit of it.

It’s almost ironic therefore that so much serious industry “buzz” at the moment centres around the future wave of information management known as “cloud computing”. I say “almost ironic” because the truth is, in more ways than one, clouds are still vapour.

The first time I ever heard Steve Jobs talk about cloud computing was in 1997 at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference. He spoke then about the idea that computers as we knew them would cease to exist, replaced by “thin clients” made of very cheap components with little actual power. All the heavy lifting would be done over the network – wherever you could find a terminal, you’d log in and

there would be all your stuff. Your applications, email, contacts, calendars, documents, everything just the way you left it when you last logged in at some other terminal. In between times all your stuff would be sitting in a “cloud” – I’m reasonably certain he used that word – waiting for you.

It was of course a dumb idea, but one shared by other visionaries at the time, notably Scott McNealy from Sun and Larry Ellison from Oracle (who would within a few weeks of that conference join Apple’s board of directors). The idea of ubiquitous dumb terminals replacing personal computers ranks alongside the white bicycles of Amsterdam back in the 1960s – a groovy hippie notion that doesn’t work in a world where people like to own stuff. That it was espoused by such notable capitalists is interesting in itself.

Probably no coincidence that it was espoused by people in high- tech companies that most likely had networks rather superior to what their customers had. When all of your stuff appears in the “cloud” within seconds of login, it looks great. Over dial-up, very much less so.

The current chief proponents of “cloud” computing continue to be based in areas of the US where high-speed internet access is fairly ubiquitous. In those areas it almost seems realistic. In pre-NBN Australia we know what normal internet access is like, particularly if you leave the big smoke.

Even in some fantastic future where the internet is fast and cheap everywhere, there is the issue of security. Will you keep your company firewall open in case a guest doing a presentation needs access to the cloud? Me neither.

I now have 4 terabytes of storage on my desk. Some of it is backup, which the cloud could replace, but even without that I have a lot of stuff to hold on to. Photos, videos, music,. If it were in the cloud, there would need to be a big drive somewhere to hold it. And another to back it up. And more around the place mirroring it so I can get it quickly. And backups for them. It gets to be big numbers. Storage vendors love cloud computing.

My usage is not particularly atypical, and I doubt that I’ll have less stuff in future than I have now. Stuff accumulates. Second law of thermodynamics.

If you’re a high-tech person living in a high-tech area doing high-tech stuff, cloud computing looks great. For the rest of us it’s puffs of steam drifting high above, looking a little like unicorns.

Matthew JC. Powell doesn’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. Take shelter at mjcp@me.com

 

Whither Mac?

At the Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple chief executive officer Steve Jobs showed features in the new iOS 5 operating system for iPhones, iPads and iPod touches, and also previewed some of the banner features of OS X 10.7, known as “Lion”, which will be out later in the year. A word he didn’t use much was “Mac”.

Indeed if you look at Apple’s web page with information about Lion you’ll find much discussion of OS X, but little mention of “Mac OS X”.

In some ways this makes sense. The OS presently running on Mac hardware has almost nothing in common with Mac OS 9. In converting the OS formerly known as NeXTStep/OpenStep to run on Mac hardware, there was

little reason beyond nostalgia to keep calling it “Mac” – and Jobs is not known to be a nostalgic man.

The computers we now call “Macs” are fundamentally different – down to the processor architecture – to the machines we called “Macs” 10 years ago. The operating system shares little to no code.

The name “Mac” still carries a strong brand identity and evokes passionate loyalty in some users, but not all. The more market share the Mac gains, the more dilute that passion becomes. And the less Apple needs it.

The time may be coming when all the word Mac evokes is “two all-beef patties, special sauce”. Matthew JC. Powell

 
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