Cloud computing’s dark lining

Cheerful UK users of iCloud, Google Drive and other US-based services might do well to ponder this.

Cloud computing has exploded in recent years as a flexible, cheap way for individuals, companies and government bodies to remotely store documents and data. According to some estimates, 35 per cent of UK firms use some sort of cloud system – with Google Drive, Apple iCloud and Amazon Cloud Drive the major players.

But it has now emerged that all documents uploaded onto cloud systems based in the US or falling under Washington’s jurisdiction can be accessed and analysed without a warrant by American security agencies.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, allows US government agencies open access to any electronic information stored by non-American citizens by US-based companies. Quietly introduced during the dying days of President George W Bush’s administration in 2008, it was renewed over Christmas 2012.

But only now are privacy campaigners and legal experts waking up to the extent of the intrusion.

Time for UK-based cloud services?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

This morning’s Observer column.

The first thought to strike anyone stumbling upon the now-infamous Innocence of Muslims video on YouTube without knowing anything about it would probably be that it makes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian look like the work of Merchant Ivory. It’s daft, amateurish beyond belief and, well, totally weird. So the notion that such a fatuous production might provoke carnage in distant parts of the world seems preposterous.

And yet it did. In the process, the video created numerous headaches for a US administration struggling to deal with the most turbulent part of the world. But it also raised some tricky questions about the role that commercial companies play in regulating free speech in a networked world – questions that will remain long after Innocence of Muslims has been forgotten…

Put not your trust in the Cloud — any cloud

This morning’s Observer column.

Most of the iCloud users of my acquaintance seem very happy with it. No more worrying about back-ups, or having out-of-date calendars on different devices. In return for an annual subscription, the great Church of Apple takes away the existential angst about data security that plagues less fortunate folks. And for as long as they stay within the enfolding arms of the Church, that blissful state will continue. That this is rather too good to be true should have been obvious to even the meanest intelligence, but it took a personal disaster last week finally to explode the illusion that single-church, cloud-based systems are the answers to everyone’s prayers.

The victim was a well-known technology journalist and iCloud subscriber named Mat Honan…

Lots of good stuff about this topic on the Web — for example this piece by Bob Cringely.

Smartphones, clouds and control

This morning’s Observer column about the latest Ofcom survey of the communications market.

The Ofcom document runs to 411 pages, so it is custom-built for empirical masochists. Given that life is short, and you may have other things to do on a Sunday morning, I will just focus on some findings in the report that leapt out at me, and ponder their implications. The survey shows that home internet access in the UK rose by 3% between 2011 and 2012 and now stands at 80%. So eight out of 10 people have access to the network. And the speed of that access is increasing: by the first quarter of 2012, for example, 76% of UK homes had a broadband connection of some description. Equally interesting is the discovery that the largest rise in internet access over the last year – 9% – was among 65 to 74-year-olds. So the idea of “silver surfers” as an endangered minority needs recalibrating.

Next, we find that two-fifths of UK adults are now smartphone users. Take-up has risen from 27% in 2011 to 39%. This is interesting because the mobile networks and the telecoms industry have in the past consistently underestimated the popularity of internet-enabled mobile phones. It’s also one of the reasons why Nokia finds itself in so much trouble.

It’s hard to exaggerate the significance of the smartphone tsunami, especially when we see Ofcom’s discovery that more than four in 10 smartphone users say their phone is more important for accessing the internet than any other device…

The gatekeepers’ demise

We went to a lovely lunch yesterday given by a friend who is a very successful writer. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the kind of topics that preoccupy professional writers — the changes that are happening to the book-publishing business; how reviews in big newspapers matter so much less nowadays than they once did; the way agents and some publishers (with some notable exceptions) seem to be in that same dreamlike state of denial one once observed in record executives and newspaper editors; and so on. The one thing my friend seemed entirely unaware of was what Amazon is doing to the self-publishing business. He was shocked by my explanation of the simple process by which one can transform a book draft in Microsoft Word into a Kindle eBook (as Jeff Jarvis did recently, for example). So it was interesting to turn to the New York Times this morning and find this quote from Jeff Bezos in a column by Tom Friedman:

“I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere,” said Bezos. Thanks to cloud computing for the masses, anyone anywhere can for a tiny hourly fee now rent the most powerful computing and storage facilities on Amazon’s “cloud” to test any algorithm or start any company or publish any book. Start-ups can even send all their inventory to Amazon, and it will do all the fulfillment and delivery — and even gift wrap your invention before shipping it to your customers.This is leading to an explosion of new firms and voices. “Sixteen of the top 100 best sellers on Kindle today were self-published,” said Bezos. That means no agent, no publisher, no paper — just an author, who gets most of the royalties, and Amazon and the reader.

Digital Darwinism

This morning’s Observer column.

This is a story about digital Darwinism. Once upon a time, the abiding nightmare of authors and students who used their PCs and laptops to compose books, dissertations and essays was that a random accident – theft of a laptop, perhaps, or a hard-disk crash – would be enough to vaporise years of irreplaceable work. So we all resorted to primitive schemes to protect against that terrible eventuality. In the early days, these took the form of piles of floppy disks stored at other locations; after that, we “burned” the precious files on to blank CDs; later still, we copied them on to USB sticks and flash drives that went in our pockets or on our keyrings; finally, we were even driven to emailing the damned things to ourselves.

Then along came an idea that made all these stratagems look, well, clumsy. It was called Dropbox. You logged on to the Dropbox site, registered (for free) and downloaded a small program (called a ‘client’) on to your computer. Once installed, this program created a special folder – helpfully labelled “Dropbox” – which appeared on your desktop. From then on, you saved any file that you wanted to back up in your Dropbox folder.

So far, so mundane. But even as you continued with your writing, the Dropbox client was busy in the background…

Chromebook: Pogue’s verdict

Good review of the Chromebook by David Pogue. His conclusion:

Maybe the Chromebook concept would fly if it cost $180 instead of $500. Maybe it makes more sense if you rent it (students and corporations can lease Chromebooks for $20 to $30 a month). Maybe it will fly once this country gets free coast-to-coast 4G cellular Internet, which should be just after hell freezes over.

For now, though, you should praise Google for its noble experiment. You should thrill to the possibilities of the online future. You should exult that somebody’s trying to shake up the operating system wars.

But unless you’re an early-adopter masochist with money to burn, you probably shouldn’t buy a Chromebook.

His main complaint is that the assumption of ubiquitous Internet connectivity on which the Chromebook depends simply doesn’t correspond with everyday reality. Sad but true.

On the other hand, some of his criticisms of the device in its first-release state could also have been levelled at Apple’s iPad when it first appeared (and indeed were levelled by me). But the avalanche of useful Apps that subsequently arrived had the effect of offsetting many of the device’s original limitations. This will also happen with the Chromebook.

iCloud roundup

The combination of iCloud with Apple’s coming mobile operating system will allow make its mobile devices more like standalone computers. Users will be able to activate and operate iPads and iPhones without ever needing to connect them to a computer running iTunes.

“We’re living in a post pc world,”said Scott Forstall, Apple’s SVP for iOS software, who shared the stage with Jobs, “if you want to cut the cord, you can.”

Forstall said that many of Apple’s customers were now people without computers who wanted their iPad or iPhone to be their only device.

(Emphasis added.)

[Source: Technology Review.]

The “post-PC” claim was made when the iPad was launched, but seemed idiotic at a time when the only way of activating the device was to hook it up via an umbilical cord to iTunes running on a PC. The surprise is that it took Apple this long to get around to it.

LATER: The NYT reports it like this:

Mr. Jobs said people will no longer have to manually sync mobile devices with their PCs, an approach that he said has become too unruly now that millions of people own music players, smartphones and tablets, each with photos, music, apps and other types of documents.

“Keeping these devices in sync is driving us crazy,” Mr. Jobs said, speaking on the opening day of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference here. “We have a great solution for this problem. We are going to demote the PC to just be a device. We are going to move the digital hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud.”

“Everything happens automatically, and there is nothing new to learn,” he added.

STILL LATER: I love the Register’s headline over its report on the WWDC presentation:

Apple opens iCloud to world+dog

Jobs: ‘It’s not as crap as MobileMe. Promise’

EVEN LATER: Nieman Journalism Lab has a useful analysis of the iCloud announcements.

So will Google’s Chromebook transform how we think about computers?

My Observer piece about the forthcoming Google netbook.

On 15 June, Google will officially take the next step on its road to global domination. From that day onwards, online shoppers will be able to buy the Google Chromebook, a device that the search giant hopes will change the way we think about computers – and in the process rain on the parades of Apple and Microsoft.

On the face of it, the Chromebook seems an unlikely game-changer. Its first two manifestations – from electronics giants Samsung and Acer – look like any old netbook: thin (0.79in) clamshell design, 12.1in screen, standard-sized keyboard, trackpad. At 3.2lb, it’s not particularly light. The claimed battery life (8.5 hours for the Samsung version) is pretty good, but otherwise the Google machine looks rather conventional.

The surprises start when you hit the on button…