In his new book "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google," computer industry writer and former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review Nicholas G. Carr discusses the changes he sees in the future of computing. One of the more dramatic changes is a shift to cloud computing -- where applications and files are stored on a large, centralized supercomputer or network. The end user accesses his or her files using computers that are more streamlined but less sophisticated than today's typical machines.
On October 17, 2007, Carr took the idea a step further in a posting on his Rough Type blog. He called out two hot technology companies, Google and Apple, and said they were on the verge of a partnership in which Apple would make an inexpensive piece of hardware users could carry around. This would leverage the computing power of the vast data centers Google has been building to hold the applications and the data for millions of users.
The idea of cloud computing certainly isn't new. Oracle's Larry Ellison launched the New Internet Computer (NIC) company in 2000 to lead the industry forward to that goal. The concept is very simple: On your desk, you would have a very low-cost computer with just a processor, a keyboard and a monitor. There would be no hard drive or CD/DVD drive. It would be hooked up to the Internet and would link to a central supercomputer, which would host all of your programs and files. The idea, however, was ahead of its time. The NIC sold very poorly, probably due to a dearth of broadband availability in the United States [source: PCWorld]. The company folded in 2003.
But by 2006, nearly 75 percent of Americans had broadband access at home [source: Neilsen/NetRatings]. Could a Google/Apple team make cloud computing a widespread phenomenon? And if they move forward, what's in it for Google and Apple? The biggest question of all: If they build the cloud computer, will anyone use it?
Read on to learn more about the future of computing.
A Googol of Power
A googol is the name for a one followed by 100 zeros. Google's name comes from its founders' desire to keep track of the vast amounts of information on the Internet [source: Google]. As the company grew, it began offering more services than just Web searches. Through in-house innovations and acquisitions of other companies, Google created what is now Google Docs, a Web-based suite of applications that includes word processing, a spreadsheet and a presentation program. With Gmail, that puts Google in direct competition with Microsoft for the corporate desktop. And unlike Office, Google Docs is completely free.
These hosted services are the kinds of applications that would be at the core of a cloud computer, just one reason it would be feasible for Google to be the perfect back-end for a hardware manufacturer to partner with. Google's machine, really a network of machines, offers amazing computing power. It also offers redundancy. Google already stores multiple backups of its information on its equipment, and if one part of one machine breaks, it can be swapped out without any loss of information [source: Baker]. Using a cloud computer stored on Google's massive infrastructure would free you from having to take your files with you -- no thumb drives, laptop hard drives, CDs, DVDs or other removable media. You could work on your projects from home, from work and on your mobile computer while on the go.
With a cloud computer, you probably wouldn't have to pay for software. Using applications hosted on the server, your local machine would have all the software it needs to work without having to store it locally. You wouldn't have to update your software to the next version -- and everyone would use the same software on the cloud. There should be no compatibility issues.
But what happens to those frequent flyers who need to work as they travel? A cloud computer would require an Internet connection, and today's airliners don't offer that ability, though some carriers have plans to offer in-flight access. You'd be stuck reading or watching the in-flight movie. You'd also have to be comfortable with letting Google, or whomever else, keep your documents online. Many corporations don't allow their documents past their firewalls. Would these companies change their minds if the majority of business was done on a cloud-computing model?
One of the biggest problems involved with creating a cloud computer is the amount of electricity required to make it work. Google built its data center in The Dalles, Ore., because of the high-speed Internet access powered by fiber optic lines and the nearby The Dalles Dam [source: Gilder]. Google needs large amounts of electricity to power the cooling equipment necessary to keep thousands of servers running. In fact, the two football-field-sized buildings each have two cooling plants four stories tall [source: Markoff and Hansell].
If Google can't handle the processing power needed to offer the world a computing cloud, it certainly is well on its way to building it. But why would Google partner with Apple for the end-user hardware? Read on for Carr's best guesses and what his critics say.
Why Google and Apple?
So why do Carr and others think Google is so interested in creating a cloud-computing network for the masses? It's not such a stretch. Google is now one of the largest computing companies in the world, and it's certainly interested in new technologies and new business opportunities.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt joined Apple's board of directors in August 2006. When asked about the idea of teaming up with Apple in a December 2007 interview with Wired Magazine, Schmidt said it plainly: "Google's architectural model around broadband and services and so forth plays very well to the powerful devices and services Apple is doing. We're a perfect back end to the problems that they're trying to solve" [source: Vogelstein].
According to Carr, Apple doesn't have the kind of supercomputing power that would be required to drive the back end of the partnership. There aren't many organizations that do. Only Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, IBM and Amazon have the ability, says Prabhakar Raghavan, the head of research at Yahoo [source: Baker]. Google and Apple have had a partnership dating back years. If Microsoft succeeds in its bid to acquire Yahoo announced Feb. 1, 2008, the combined companies may well be able to leverage a sophisticated cloud-computing environment.
If Google and Apple do team up for this sort of partnership, here's what Carr feels their cloud computer would be like:
- Inexpensive: The machine you'd buy would be under $200 and there would be no charge for applications or data transfer.
- Green: With a low-power chip and flash memory, an Apple thin client -- a network computer -- would have no power-hungry optical drive or hard drive.
- Easy to maintain: No optical drive or hard drive also means fewer moving parts, which means it would probably live a longer life.
- Easy to update: You wouldn't have to worry about updating your software, that would all be taken care of for you. You could just use your machine until it simply wore out [source: Carr].
In this deal, Carr says, Apple would sell the hardware, and Google would subsidize the cost of supplying the servers with advertising, just as it does in other businesses in which it works. Schmidt said Google would offer as many of its services as it could for free, though the company believes that more advanced users might be asked to pay for access to more features.
Robert X. Cringely, noted technology reporter and columnist, agrees with Carr that a Google-Apple cloud-computing partnership could take place, but he also believes the deal might not be as simple as Carr makes it out to be. Instead, the corporate philosphy cultivated by Apple's iconic former CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs might provide a source of irritation for Schmidt and Google. As Cringely put it, "Schmidt (and Carr) see that Apple doesn't have the supercomputer, but Jobs just as firmly believes that Google doesn't know how to run the supercomputer it has, and besides, he can rent a supercomputer anytime he wants one, so there" [source: Cringely].
Cringely believes that Apple will make Carr's cloud-computing device but will also make other cloud computing devices at a variety of prices. He says that Apple will be the dominant company in the partnership, and Google would take a back seat.
Could Apple really find other partners to supply services to its customers? What if Google and Apple do team up? Will anyone take them on? Learn more about other cloud computing efforts on the next page.
Other Cloud Candidates
One of the reasons the idea of cloud computing is getting so much traction is the efforts of companies other than Google to make it happen. Microsoft, Amazon and IBM are some of those known to be considering cloud offerings.
Two of the leading candidates to compete with Google or a partnership with Apple may be joining forces. On Feb. 1, 2008, Microsoft announced it had made a bid for Yahoo, which would help both companies in their quest to beat out the search giant [source: Microsoft]. In addition to massive computing power and many other Web services, Yahoo brings a robust Web mail network and photo site Flickr to the table. Meanwhile, Microsoft offers Windows Live, a word processing program and calendar. With its Office suite already entrenched in the desktops of offices across the country, a Microsoft cloud could enter the race as a contender.
Another potential competitor could be Amazon.com. Already one of the world's largest online retailers, the company has interests in other areas as well. Amazon Web Services is a suite of cloud resources aimed at small developers who need a place to work online [source: Amazon.com]. The Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) gives users computing power for their work. They can store files in the Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) and use SimpleDB, a database, to store and access smaller files quickly [source: Claburn].
In November 2007, IBM announced its Blue Cloud initiative, offering a package of hardware and software to allow its customers to create their own internal clouds [source: LaMonica]. The company had already partnered with Google to provide cloud solutions for six American universities a month earlier. IBM hopes to grow the program to allow more universities and corporate and government entities to join in [source: Lohr].
Many companies are offering hardware designed to operate on cloud networks, including Hewlett Packard, Dell and Clear Cube. However, you wouldn't necessarily need a computer to access a cloud network -- you could also use other hardware designed to link to the Internet, such as a wireless phone. In January 2008, Google bid in a U.S. government auction for a 700 MHz radio frequency license which would allow them to operate a wireless phone service [source: CNET News.com]. Winning the bid would open the door to Carr's idea just that much farther. Google argued that the frequencies should be accessible by a range of devices, and the company got its wish: The spectrum became open-access once the bidding reached the $4.6 billion reserve price [source: Albanesius].
Despite Carr's enthusiasm -- he said in his blog post he expects the Google-Apple partnership to bear fruit in "months, not years" -- there has been no formal announcement from either company. But in January 2008, Apple announced a new product that's similar to a cloud computer in some respects.
At the MacWorld San Francisco trade show, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the closest thing it has to a cloud computing device: the MacBook Air. It's less than an inch thick at its largest; Jobs pulled the demonstration model from a manila mailing envelope during the product announcement. It weighs only three pounds. To get it so thin, Apple engineers sacrificed an optical drive and some of its connections, including Ethernet. The battery had to be incorporated in a way that prevents users from replacing it themselves. Unlike a true thin client, the MacBook Air has a hard drive, which can be either a traditional drive or a solid-state drive [source: Apple].
But for now, Google and Apple are not officially partnered on a cloud device -- the MacBook Air is not tied solely to Google for storage and software.
For more on Google, Apple, cloud computing and other related topics, see the next page.
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