Cloudy, with a chance of… well, anything.

Martin Levins
24 December, 2011
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I wrote briefly about the ‘The Cloud’ in my column of July last year, looking primarily at security. But now that Apple’s iCloud is official, it bears more discussion.

Firstly, popular explanations for ‘The Cloud’ (online storage) would leave you thinking that the term is probably the biggest exercise in rebranding since the New Testament.

We’ve always been able to store stuff on remote sites; that’s how email works: We send data to a remote site that stores, then forwards our mail. This new branding had better offer more than just a larger version of this.

If we take Microsoft’s SkyDrive offering, we get 25GB of remote storage but limited to 50MB per file, so no 10-minute iMovies here. (At least it’s platform agnostic, unlike Amazon’s Android-specific Cloud Drive.)

Offerings such as give a little more functionality, but as a paid service it’s quite expensive and is still in the idiom of store and forward.

Dropbox and Box both offer free storage, and you can pay and get more than the base level.

Recommendations to friends can garner you more storage, and a fairly recent ‘while stocks last’ promotion from Box netted a lifetime quota of 50GB for early adopters.

Should I mention here that 50GB is approximately 2500 times the capacity of my first Mac external hard drive and that (curiously) it cost me $2500? Probably not: Box is now offering 1TB of online storage for US$15 per month.

In the case of Dropbox and Box, you get to play fileserver manager, granting access to others with a range of permissions, comments, Google App integration and so forth.

But the important thing is the offer of data synchronisation.

I can’t stress how important this is. A few years ago, some friends and I tried to come up with those 21st Century skills that we hear so much about and decided that the only real skill is knowing where your stuff is.

Synchronisation removes even this as your stuff is everywhere you want it, as long as you have internet access. That’s what synchronisation does for you. Combine something like Evernote and remote storage and you get the idea.

Apple has touted its iCloud service as having just such a synchronisation and storage function, and its emerging iTunes Match hints at some of the future possibilities: My entire music collection, irrespective of where I got the music, can be converted to high-quality tracks in the cloud, ready for download when and where I need them, for a miserly US$25 per year.

The clever thing is that this only needs a bit more storage than the total number of different songs bought. The extra bit is made up of who ‘owns’ that song: 1000 digital IDs for the 1000 people who own, say, Starship’s We Built This City (poor sods).

It’s this sort of cleverness that makes the Cloud different, and iCloud is right up there, although true synchronisation, à la Evernote, is only for iOS devices so far, and the scalability of powerful educational computing solutions hosted on the internet (software as a service) has yet to be demonstrated.

For schools, this means bandwidth, and lots of it. Streaming 256kbps of music, multiplied by the number of kids will give you some idea of how much.

At the Australian Computers in Education Conference in October 2008, Julia Gillard said: “We will be investing $100 million to contribute to the provision of high-speed fibre-tothe- premise broadband connections in schools.” This was quietly scrapped in June 2011.

I wish our politicians would have the same vision as Steve Jobs, who articulated his personal vision for cloud computing at the World Wide Developer’s Conference in 1997.

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