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Keeping our heads even further in the cloud

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen

Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.


Have you ever noticed that:

  • Non-techies think computers are more powerful than they really are, and
  • technology then does eventually progress to make the machines do pretty much what our non-technical brothers and sisters thought they were capable of all along?
I think my mom always sort of secretly believed her computer could see her. Not just react to her keystrokes, but could really (creepily) watch her through its flickering monitor as she sat poised before her digital Yahtzee game. (Consequently, there was no computing in pajamas in her house.)

Of course, if she were alive today and using a modern laptop with its built-in, inward-facing camera, the notion of a nosy PC wouldn’t seem so quaint, now, would it?

My friend Dave McGuire, who sat across from me on the newspaper’s city desk decades ago, never did buy a computer, even though he was fascinated by each newly reported innovation, discussing it with me almost daily. His resistance came, in part, because he had an abiding fear of hackers.

“Charlie,” he would lament, “those SOBs can see everything you type.”

They couldn’t then — it was still the relatively innocent early 1980s — but they can now. I think of McGuire’s moan every time I read about a new variation in rogue keylogger programs, the well-established class of surveillance software that can record your every keystroke to email to remote clandestine observers.

Thoughts of Mom and Dave and many other beloved non-techies I’ve known over the years came back to me recently as I contemplated the latest installment in this “you-mean-we-couldn’t-do-that-already?” class of computing. By this I mean the innovation we in the Nerd Nation have termed, in a rather rare flight of poetry, “cloud computing.”

Working “in the cloud” simply means using a network of Internet-based machines to store, manage and process your data rather than relying solely on a lonely personal computer or local server.

For many of us, the first real application of cloud computing has come with the use of the free software known as Dropbox (dropbox.com).

Launched in 2007 by Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi, Dropbox lets you create a special folder on each of your computers and other digital devices, a folder that Dropbox then synchronizes for you in the cloud. After that, it appears to be the same folder, with the same contents, regardless of which computer or device you use to view it. In addition, files placed in this folder are accessible via a website and/or through smartphone apps.

I knew that Dropbox was The Next Big Thing when some of the clients for whom I design and manage websites began talking about it. These good people — many of whom routinely chant the old, familiar mantra: “I’m not a computer person” — began advising me to pick up their latest photos and text files in their Dropbox folders. In other words, for them Dropbox had quickly become “the regular way.”

But the cloud turns out to be much bigger than merely Dropbox. Consider, for instance, what’s happening at Apple Computers Inc. these days.

Just months before he died in 2011, computer visionary Steve Jobs said this curious thing at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference: “We’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device. We’re going to move your hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud.”

“What!?” I remember thinking when I read that remark. Jobs had spent much of his extraordinary life building his iconic Macintosh family of machines. Was he now planning to make them obsolete?

No, of course not. But the full impact of Jobs’ final vision — no less than a new way of thinking about computing — took a while to come to light. In fact, it was only a few weeks ago, with announcements at WWDC 2014, that I began to finally understand.

We now know what Jobs set in motion before he died was a plan to unite all the devices in your home and office (iMacs, PCs, iPhones, iPads), not by trying to force them all to work alike, but (1) by letting each do what it does best and (2) using the cloud (in the form of Apple’s new iCloud Drive) to tie them all together.

Terms like “continuity” and “handoff” fill the emerging discussions of Apple’s new operating system, and these concepts of computing cooperation are sure to be imitated by others.

Imagine starting an email on one device and simply, seamlessly continuing it on another. Imagine photos — no matter whether taken by a phone, a tablet or a digital camera — instantly ending up in the same cloud-based library. Imagine every device automatically backed up to off-site, cloud-based reservoirs.

And, this time, ironically, it’s the nerds and not just the nubies, who are saying, “Wait a minute! Don’t I already do that with Dropbox?”

Yes, perhaps. But as Charlie Sorrel noted recently on the Cult of Mac website (cultofmac.com), saying the iCloud Drive is just Dropbox is “missing the point as much as calling the iPod ‘just an MP3 player’ back in 2001.”

“Remember,” Sorrell continues, “Apple isn’t making stuff for us. It’s making stuff for the hundreds of millions of ‘normal folks’ who buy its hardware. And being able to get at your data wherever you are, whichever device you’re using, is huge.”

Huge, and oddly familiar. Yes, the cloud is the way we should have been doing it all along.
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