The Cloud is everywhere all the time; it knows who you are, where you are and it is casting its shadow upon you right now. Driven by shifts in technology and culture, The Cloud is part of our personal and professional lives whether we like it or not. If you have a Facebook account, your Timeline is in The Cloud; if you have a Flickr account, your photos are in The Cloud; if you have a Netflix account, the movies you watch are stored in The Cloud; if you have a DropBox account, your documents are in The Cloud.
The Cloud or cloud computing has many forms. One can think of it as computing as a utility instead of with a piece of electronic hardware, a device or a program that you own. Cloud computing is associated with shared computer resources such as data storage systems or applications over the Internet.
In contrast to the personal computing model—where every system has unique copies of software and data and a large local storage volume—cloud computing distributes and replicates these assets on servers across the globe. Historically speaking, The Cloud is a return—in the age of the Internet, apps and social media—to the time-sharing terminal computing model of the 1950s. It maintains computer processes and data functions centrally and enables users to access them from anywhere and at any time.
The phrase “The Cloud” was originally used in the early 1990s as a metaphor to describe the Internet. Beginning in 2000, the technologies of cloud computing began to expand exponentially and since then have become ubiquitous. Solutions like Apple’s .Mac (2000), MobileMe (2008) and finally iCloud (2011) have enabled public familiarity with cloud computing models. Certainly the ability to access, edit and update your personal digital assets—documents, photos, music, video—from multiple devices is a key feature of The Cloud experience.
The development and proliferation of cloud file sharing (CFS) systems such as DropBox, Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive—offering multiple gigabytes of file storage for free—have also driven mass adoption. Some industry analysts report that there are more than 500 million CFS users today.
Beside benefits for the consumer, cloud-based solutions are being offered by enterprise computing providers such as IBM and Oracle with the promise of significant financial savings associated with shared and distributed resources. In fact, The Cloud has become such an important subject today that every supplier of computer systems—as well as online retailers like Amazon—is hoping to cash in on the opportunity by offering cloud solutions to businesses and consumers.
For those of us in the printing and graphic arts industries, a prototypical example of cloud computing is Adobe’s Creative Cloud. Adopters of Adobe CC are becoming accustomed to monthly software subscription fees as opposed to a one-time purchase of a serialized copy as well as shared data storage of their creative graphics content on Adobe’s servers.
In a more general sense, The Cloud is part of the process of digital convergence, i.e. the coming together of all media and communications technologies into a unified whole. The concept of technology convergence was pioneered at MIT by the social scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool in 1983. In his breakthrough book Technologies of Freedom, De Sola Pool postulated that digital electronics would cause the modes of communication—telephone, newspapers, radio, and text—to combine into one “grand system.”
Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, substantially developed the theory of digital convergence in the 1980s and 1990s. Long before the emergence of the World Wide Web, Negroponte was foretelling that digital technologies were causing the “Broadcast and Motion Picture Industry,” the “Computer Industry” and the “Print and Publishing Industry” to overlap with each other and become one. As early as 1978, Negroponte was predicting that this process would reach maturity by the year 2000.
At the center of digital convergence—and the growth and expansion of The Cloud—is the acceleration of electronic technology innovation. John Hagel III of The Center for the Edge at Deloitte has identified the following technological and cultural components that are responsible for this accelerated development.
Infrastructure and Users
The cost/performance trends of core digital technologies are closely associated with Moore’s Law, i.e. that the stated number of transistors on an affordable CPU doubles every two years. By extension this law of exponential innovation can also be applied to other digital technologies such as storage devices and Internet bandwidth. In simple terms, what this means is that the quantity of information that can be processed, transmitted and stored per dollar spent is accelerating over time. The development of digital convergence and of cloud computing is entirely dependent upon these electronic technology shifts. The following graphs illustrate this:
Culture: Installed Base
Tracking closely with the acceleration of computer technology innovation—and also driving it—is the adoption of rate of these technologies by people. Without the social and practical implementation of innovation, digital convergence and The Cloud could not have moved from the laboratory and theoretical possibility into modern reality. Both the number of Internet users and wireless subscriptions are core to the transformations in human activity that are fueling the shift from the era of the personal computer to that of mobile, social media and cloud computing.
The full implications of these changes are hard to comprehend. Some experts point out that previous generations of disruptive technology—electricity, telephone, internal combustion engine, etc.—have, after an initial period of accelerated innovation, been followed by periods of stability and calm. In our time, the cost/performance improvement of digital technologies—and the trajectory of Moore’s Law—shows no sign of slowing down in the foreseeable future.
While it is increasingly difficult to keep up with the demands of this change, we are compelled to do so. The fact is that we have been in The Cloud for some time now means that our conceptions and plans must be reflective of this reality. We cannot attempt to hide from The Cloud in our personal and professional affairs anymore than we could have hidden from the personal computer or the smartphone. The key is to embrace The Cloud and find within it new opportunities for harnessing its power to become more effective and successful in our daily lives and business offerings to customers.