I don't wanna come back down from this cloud...

I spent last week at VMWorld 2010, and returned with a head full of ideas on the future of computing. I’ll be presenting some of these thoughts in the coming series of posts, and look forward to some discussions on the subject.

Watching the world’s largest virtualization company attempt to make clear its vision of the future, the thing that stood out most was: I’ve never heard the word “cloud” used so much in my life. Indeed, "the cloud" has been a buzzword for a few years now, describing any number of disparate technologies, architectures, and concepts. But the reality of this next phase in computing, and what this “cloud” will actually become, is coming into focus.

We talk about pushing servers to the cloud, utilizing cloud resources, minimizing hardware expenditure. This is good for developers and companies striving to maximize efficiency and resource usage, but what about the consumer? What will they eventually store in the cloud?

Operating Systems.

A big chunk of the OS needs to be pushed to the cloud. My wife doesn’t need all of the processing power her laptop has. Hell, I don’t need most of the processing power mine has most of the time. If I’m not compiling code, running a bunch of VMs, or playing a graphics-intensive productivity app (read: Starcraft II), I don’t need much more processing power than my iPad has. And now constant, fast internet connectivity is becoming ubiquitous. The next generation of mobile connectivity will surpass basic cable internet speeds. Free wifi nearly grows on trees. So why do we stuff computers and other devices full of hardware to maintain enough computing resources to run a full blown OS, all the time?  We shouldn't.

Push the business layer of the OS up to the cloud, allow devices to be thin portals to data presented by abstract, ephemeral computing resources. I can use what processing power I need when I need it, and leave it for someone else when I’m just surfing the web. Efficiency. Plain and simple.

Let consumers minimize local hardware, while maximizing their computing flexibility and ability to consume data.

I imagine that Microsoft and Google are thinking just this, to different degrees. MS Office Live seems like a first stab at getting Windows users used to keeping some data in the cloud, and having it available from any terminal they want to access it from. Loyal Google users have long since gotten used to this with Gmail, Google documents, calendars and contact lists. With ChromeOS and the Google App Marketplace, I bet they take it to the next level:

  • All of your apps are in the cloud
  • All of your data ends up in the cloud, providing automatic state sync for any dumb terminal you log in from
  • The presentation layer (UI) is separated from the data layer and business layer (apps), so different devices can easily present drastically different interfaces to the same users ‘OS’

Privacy concerns aside, this is a logical progression. The last point contains the real fun. Common computing form factors (mobile phones, tablets, and laptops/desktops) all have different advantages/disadvantages as far as human/computer interaction goes, and would ideally each have a different interface tailored to them to maximize the user experience. “But the iPad runs IOS, it has the same interface as an iPhone!” And as quickly as they can, app developers are churning out interfaces optimized for the new form factor. Flipboard would be junk on an iPhone, but it’s fantastic on a tablet.

But these devices remain unconnected, isolated experiences for the user. The backend data, the “computer” itself, to most users, needs to become a constant, consistent digital home. The users experience is starting to venture outside the bounds of the individual device, instead encompassing all of their interactions with the internet and their own data. Local storage won’t go away altogether, but personal servers are swiftly being made accessible via the internet. The cloud is becoming a comfortable storage repository for personal media. Perhaps with its acquisition of lala.com, Apple wanted more than to kill off a competitor. Perhaps they see the writing on the wall too, and want in. iTunes would feel right at home in the cloud, and I’d no longer be annoyed by having to tether my iPad to a computer to sync.

Seems the big players are ready.  Are you?