The Cloud: Changing The Way We Think About Data

We used to expect less from our computers. Files were meant to be static, storage was expensive, and sharing meant burning a CD or printing out a document. Software was bought in a box, browsers were slow, and we still watched TV on a TV. No one expected more than that; you could only expect so much from computers.

Adding larger hard drivers, faster processors, and clearer flat screens changed our computers, but it didn’t change the way we think about computing. That change came from the cloud. Let’s look at some of the ways web apps and cloud computing have changed the ways we think about data and computing.

Instant Information

The internet has brought the world of information to our fingertips. We’ve become increasingly less reliant on reference books to find facts, relying instead on Google, Wikipedia, and whatever other sites our searches lead us to. Need to find how to spell a word? Just Google it; it’ll likely guess the correct spelling. Need to find out how much caffeine is in your coffee, or the market differences between Apple, Microsoft, and Kraft Foods? Wolfram Alpha’s got the answer for you.

Sometimes, WolframAlpha seems too smart...

While some may see the internet as making us dumber, I feel that most people actually keep up with more information now than ever before. This is both good and bad. 200 years ago, it would have taken months for the rest of the world to hear about Japan’s earthquake. Thanks to the internet, many of us heard about the earthquake on Twitter seconds after it happened.


As crazy as it may seem, Google has made it easier to find a picture of some rare, exotic tree in the Amazon rain forest than it is to find that one picture of your kid you saved somewhere on your computer. We now expect more from computers, and want them to help us find the things we need quicker. After all, if you can find it on the internet, surely you should be able to find it on your computer, too, right?

Sure, desktop apps have improved, and search works much faster on today’s operating systems than it did, say, in the ’90’s. Even still, searching your personal files, online or offline, is still not as simple as a Google search. Kids weren’t surprised at all that IBM’s Watson could win Jeopardy, but they’re equally not surprised when their mom can’t find a file on their computers. New services such as Greplin aim to make it easier to search your personal data, bringing the power of distributed computing to your own files. Here again, web apps are leading the way and changing how we think about data and computing.

Always Avilable, Anytime, Anywhere

When I started college, I wanted to make sure I’d never lose my files like I did occasionally in high school. Thanks to Skydrive, and later Dropbox, that was a reality for my college career. I put all of my important files online, then I could always get back to work wherever I was. I’ve edited files from internet cafes, libraries, and more, and keeping my data together was never a problem.

Cloud storage services have reduced our dependence on individual machines, letting us just assume we’ll always have access to our data. Today, you’re less tied to one operating system than ever before, and many of us could pick up work from almost any computer thanks to web apps, including WordPress, Gmail, Dropbox, and more. In fact, this has enabled the shift to new computer types, and lets us switch to tablets or netbooks without too much trouble. That’s why I’ve found many young people today surprised when they couldn’t find their files from someone else’s computer. Web apps have taught us to not worry about where we keep our files.

Dropbox lets us keep our devices synced easier than ever before

One thing that’s proved harder to move to the cloud is our music, movies, TV shows, and other media. These larger files take much longer to upload, and piracy concerns have prevented most web app innovation around media. That said, there’s change coming, even for media.

The future of media looks cloudy...

First, subscription services such as Netflix and Last.FM have changed the way many consume media. Instead of owning and managing your media, you can just watch and listen to anything you want with your subscription. Then, there’s a ton of new initiatives to help you move your music to to the cloud, including the new Google Music and Amazon Cloud Player, along with Apple’s rumored cloud music service. Then, some of us already store our music in Dropbox and other hosted services, keeping our music available along with our other files.


Unlimited Inventory

Scarcity seems like an ancient concept with digital goods today. Amazon has a seemingly limitless catalog of books and other goods we can purchase in one click, and eBay seems to always have that one odd thing you never thought you’d see for sell again. Even when you’re buying music and movies, for many people, if it’s not on iTunes, they’re just not going to buy it.

You can shop at 2AM, have your purchases instantly downloaded, and always be sure there’s a copy of Wall-E ready for you to buy when you want it. Used to, you’d have to plan to go to the local bookstore to pick up a book for your trip. Now, just buy a new Kindle eBook online while you’re going down the highway, and start reading it seconds later. The internet has changed our habits yet again.

Sometimes, The Cloud Goes Down

That’s why it surprises us when web apps have downtime. We’ve come to rely on web apps so much, we just assume they’re going to just work. Twitter’s infamous Fail Whale reminded us that there’s nothing magical about hosted services. They still require real computing hardware to run, and can still break. The normal users don’t have to worry about updates anymore, but that doesn’t mean that no one has to worry about keeping the app running.

The Cloud isn't magically fail-proof

Then, as more services are hosted on the same services such as Amazon EC2, the potential for widespread outages become higher. Amazon’s recent EC2 downtime took down a significant number of web apps, a problem that will continue as we shift more of our computing to the cloud.


The Future

As web apps continue to influence the ways we think about computing, our traditional concepts of PC computers is influencing the cloud, too. While it’s nice to have instant access to your data everywhere, sometimes you need to work offline, too. Traditional programs and newer mobile apps have the great advantage of running faster in the native operating system and being ready to use even if the internet is down.

Web app developers are racing to make this possible for web apps as well. Microsoft has gone to great lengths to add hardware acceleration to IE 9, which has enabled increasingly sophisticated online apps and games to run smoothly. Firefox and Chrome have quickly added similar features, and the competition never stops. Then, Google is working to add offline support to its apps, and many web apps already work offline in Chrome. These and other developments will keep web apps and desktop apps feeling more and more alike.

60 FPS in your browser? Just so we can play Angry Birds.

How have web apps influenced the way you use your computer and keep up with your files? Do you expect programs to sync online now, or do you wish you could return to just keeping everything on your hard drive? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!