Life in the Cloud

This may be the year that Cloud Computing really starts to take off – mainstream coverage has started to appear like this piece on the BBC website and it is appearing on corporate IS agendas.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this shift recently and I think under cover of this there is a much more profound change taking place – the shift from document centricity to web centricity.

By this I mean that the old client-server model which dominated the latter years of the last century gave way in this to a web-centric view of the world. Let’s call them the “Microsoft Way” and the “Google Way” since those two giants dominate each approach respectively.

The Micosoft Way focusses on the individual, sitting at his or her PC, loaded with software which empowers personal productivity, but in a off-line way. This was sensible – internet connections were slow and hard to come by and the best security came from having your documents on your machine.

Of course collaboration in this model was difficult – you created a document, emailed it to some colleagues, they each changed a bit and sent it back and you were left with the task of combining the results. This means multiple versions out them, many part-finished versions languishing on file and print servers, and email inboxes clogged up with documents.

The solutions, often quite complex and hard to use,  were then bolted on top – Track Changes to version documents, Sharepoint to store official version of documents, LiveMeeting to allow collaboration over the internet etc etc.

The Google Way is different. It starts with the internet – Google was born in a age when ubiquitous connectivity was becoming a reality.  The document in Google Apps starts life as an online document with the presumption it will be shared. Multiple people can edit the document simultaneously and all these edits can be tracked and rolled back seamlessly. Spreadsheets come with forms which can be emailed or embedded and which can update online spreadsheets which can be published onto intranets through Sites. Presentations can be instantly shared both in creation and play-back mode. Person-to-person communication through chat, video and VOIP is built in. Storage is no longer a problem – quotas are huge and growing.

Much of this can be achieved using the old paradigm but usually at an additional cost in licences (Sharepoint, Infopath, Livemeeting etc) and more often than not with the required help of internal IS staff who are needed to configure these complex add-ons.

This of course works for the IS community in corporations, creating jobs and a meaningful role in companies. But start-ups are not using these products – they are jumping straight to the cloud solutions – the Google Apps, 37 Signals, solutions which are much simpler to use, and much more configurable by the users.

The result of this is dangerous – it has the capacity to create a real competitive chasm – building on a platform like Apps can empower ordinary knowledge workers to create quite sophisticated solutions without the intervention of programmers. The more they build the greater their propensity to build. And all of this extra functionality is coming at a very low cost and is increasing their agility.

In my view this is the real cultural shift at the heart of the Cloud Computing debate. Just putting your old apps into someone’s datacentre misses the point. Changing the way you work is the really smart move.