The crossroads

Martin Levins
18 August, 2011
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So, you approach your laptop/ desktop/iPad to do some work but, before you can use it, it goes through a logging-in process, which takes approximately 20 minutes.

Acceptable? I think not. Yet this is the fate (apparently) of a lot of students. At the Technology in K-12 Education National Congress 2011, recently held in Sydney, a panel of students claimed this as the most annoying thing about working with computer technologies in their schools. Even allowing for adolescent hyperbole you can see the insanity of keeping them waiting.

It’s a business model where ‘roaming profiles’ get transferred to the user’s machine over a network already stressed by the avalanche of loggers-in at the beginning of a school period.

The business model assumes that the computer will log on once at the beginning of the day and that the wait is OK as its user will probably be getting coffee or discussing last night’s Dancing with the Stars. The reality in most educational settings is that this time is not only more valuable than that, but that the frustration is doing a whole lot more damage than just time wasting.

New developments such as the cloud have brought us to a crossroads. In many cultures crossroads mark the site of Faustian deals, such as that whereby blues guitarist Robert Johnston is rumoured to have swapped his soul for astounding expertise on the fretboard.

Now you’re probably not going to be soul swapping for a working copy of OS X Lion, but the crossroads are indeed here with the cloud; you may have to give up something for what you get.
We now have a bunch of remote storage sites such as MobileMe, Dropbox, Microsoft Live and so forth, but they are pretty much the equivalent of a network share. The real change is heralded by sites such as and and, more recently, concepts such as Google Chromebook.
Chromebooks rely on applications, not just data, living on the internet, so they don’t need to be very powerful, just able to access the internet as needed. However, I think Chromebook is just a first approximation.

With the release of iCloud at WWDC, Apple may have astounded the world with ‘cloud computing’ done right. They won’t necessarily get everything right at first because they are (A) human and (B) committed to good experiences, so they won’t introduce functionality until it really works reliably.

The Faustian deal we will have to contemplate is committing all our stuff to a remote repository, and relying on remote apps, in return for convenience.

Two big questions arise when it comes to the cloud: Do you trust companies with personal data? Can you rely on internet access?

The answer to the first is probably yes, if you use an awards credit card or use Google Mail, although Sony’s recent network hacking episode may change your mind.

The second is harder. I wouldn’t want a device that disconnected me from all my stuff when I had no wireless reception, but offline access is being worked on (along the lines of the now defunct Google Gears) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple was developing this sort of functionality now, as an extension to HTML 5.

It’s more interesting in education. What if all schools had to do was provide education to kids rather than mess about with IT departments that distributed roaming profiles and blocked sites on the internet?

What if their work was available anywhere, using any machine, irrespective of OS, colour or creed? And with no waiting time.

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