Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why Cloud Computing is the Finger Pointing at the Moon, Not the Moon


The thing about "cloud computing" is that it is very difficult to isolate and separate from other broader changes in computing infrastructure, all of which are happening simultaneously. We are, most would agree, on the cusp of a change in basic change in computational architecture from "PC" centric to something that might be called "mobile Internet computing," for lack of a more-descriptive and well-understood term.

The point, simply, is that the shift to "cloud-based" computing is inextricably bound up with other crucial changes such as a shift to use of mobile devices as the key end user access device, the rise of Web-based, hosted and remote applications and user experiences.

For most people, businesses and organizations, the shift of geolocational "places" where computing takes place will occur in the background. The main change is the evolution in things that can be done with computational resources.

Aside from something like an order of magnitude more devices that are connected to computing resources, the new mobile Internet will mean the creation of something like a "sensing" fabric will be put into place. Cameras will create "eyes," microphones will create "mouths to speak," and "ears" to hear. Kinesthetic capabilities will create new ways to interact with information overlaid on the "real" or physical world.

All those new devices also will create new possibilities for enriching "location" information. GPS is fine for fixing a location in terms of latitude and longitude. But what about altitude? What about locating devices, people or locations that are in high-rise buildings? Emergency services and first responders need that additional information.

But the possibilities for "sensing" networks grow exponentially once communications, altitude, attitude and other three-dimensional information is available to any application. Lots of medical and recreational devices now can capture biomedical information in real time. Add real-time communications and many other possibilities will open up.

The point is simply that cloud computing as computational architecture will enable other changes, going well beyond simple ability to send and receive information of any sort. The shift to distributed computing will, with mobile sensors, devices and people, lead to vastly-different ability to monitor the environment, process and annotate or contextualize events and objects in the real world with granularity.

That is not to understate the challenges and opportunities for a wide range of companies in the ecosystem, caused directly by a shift of core competencies. By definition, a change of computing eras has always been accompanied by a completely new list of industry leaders.

Keenly aware of that historic precedent, none of today’s computing giants will take anything for granted as the new era begins to take hold. At the same time, it is hard not to predict that key stakeholders of just about every sort might find themselves severely disrupted by the shift.

So far, whole industries ranging from media and music to telecom, advertising and retailing have found themselves struggling to adjust to a world with lower barriers to entry and radically different ways of creating and delivering products and services people want.

As the shift to the next computing paradigm occurs, many more human activities and business models will find themselves subject to attack and change.

Within the global communications business, it should be noted that the incremental growth of just about everything “mobile” will hit an inflection point. Whether that happened in 2009, will happen in 2010 or takes just a bit longer is not the point.

To talk about a world where a trillion devices are connected, in real time, to the Internet, to servers, software and applications, is to talk about a world where mobility IS communications. Mobility will not be merely an important segment of the business, it will be THE business at the end user level.

That is not to say the core backbone networks, data centers and other long-haul and even access networks are unimportant; to the contrary they will be the fundamental underpinning of the “always on, always connected” ecosystem of applications and business activity which will depend on those assets.

Without denigrating in any way the “pipes,” dumb or otherwise, that will be the physical underpinning of all the applications, there is only so much value anybody can wring out of plumbing. Most of the economic value is going to reside elsewhere.

That said, there already are numerous ways to look at cloud computing infrastructure, as it is used to build businesses that create added value.

Almost by definition, cloud computing enables consumption of software and applications that use remote computing facilities. We sometimes call this “software as a service” and the trend is an early precursor of what happens in the shift from PC-based to mobile and cloud-based computing.

Such uses of cloud computing will have intermediate effects on end user experiences. Lots of everyday computing or application experiences will shift away from local computing or storage, and towards on-the-fly rendering.

The shift to utility computing—enterprise use of cloud computing—will shift data centers from “owned and operated” facilities to outsourced services. But that likely will have less impact than the shift to SaaS-based applications.

The former is an “industrial” shift; the latter is more an “end user” shift. And all cloud computing effects will have most impact when they directly touch end user experiences.

Utility computing contributes to many end user experiences, but much utility computing is “behind the scenes.” Hosted applications are, and increasingly will be, everyday experiences for most human beings.

Web services are the area where end user impact will be noticed most strikingly, and where the most-profound transformations will occur, as Web services—mostly mobile—will touch end users with services and features that cannot be provided any other way.

Cloud computing is important, to be sure. But we will miss the bigger picture in focusing too narrowly on what it means for data centers, utility computing services, transport and access providers. Even the huge trend towards mobility is a sub-plot.

Cloud computing will enable an era of ubiquitous computing, with social and economic consequences we cannot begin to imagine. It is a huge business change for all of us in communications. But it is just a finger pointing at the moon; not the moon itself.

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