As posted on How long will I be able to avoid the cloud?
How long will I be able to continue avoiding the cloud? I mean things like Microsoft accounts (my computers all use Windows 10), Facebook, Google and so on. I like everything to be stored on my computer and I don’t need to “share” stuff with others, but I have a feeling that Microsoft and others want everyone to sign up. BJG
It’s almost impossible to avoid the cloud now, because of the movement of commercial and government services to the web, the multiplication of computing devices and the rapid growth in smartphones. These different trends reinforce one another.
There’s nothing new about moving services online: the first online shopping service appeared in 1984. Billions of websites, email services and applications are now cloud-based. Many of them run from giant cloud server farms such as Amazon’s AWS (Amazon Web Services), Microsoft Azure and the Google Cloud Platform.
Many of the things people used to do offline are now done via cloud services. Streaming music, video and TV services are gradually replacing DVD players, standalone hi-fis and MP3 players. Some of us still prefer CDs and Blu-ray BDs for their quality and reliability, but we’d all miss BBC iPlayer, Netflix and Amazon Prime.
You’re not obliged to use social networks, and there are alternatives to Google/Microsoft such as DuckDuckGo, ProtonMail and Zoho Workplace. But taken literally, “avoiding the cloud” would mean avoiding all of those as well.
Computers used to be so expensive that only governments and large corporations could afford them. Since the 1970s, however, microprocessors have made computer power cheaper and cheaper. This led to a sort of Cambrian explosion of digital devices.
The desktop PC, which democratised personal computing, was a multi-purpose device. People used the same PC for word processing and accounting etc, doing email, playing music and games, and much more. Today, people often have half a dozen devices for different purposes. These can include desktop and laptop PCs, smartphones and tablets, television set-top boxes, media servers and games consoles.
To those we can add even more devices such as smart TV sets and digital radios, home security systems, electricity meters and thermostats, doorbells, fitness bands and interactive assistants such as Amazon’s Echo and Google Home. People who hype the Internet of Things see few limits to the expansion of the smart gadget market. The idea of a computerised toothbrush, kettle or toaster does not sound as silly as it did 20 years ago.
Given that people have, or will have, a plethora of intelligent devices, they will certainly need a way to monitor and control them, receive error messages, and synchronise data between them. You’re not going to do that without the cloud.
Mobility and smartphones
Many people started to use handheld phones in the 1990s. It started a boom in SMS text messaging, and soon people were doing email on their phones, too – often with a RIM Blackberry. In the early 2000s, a few hardy souls even used phones to view WAP sites on the web.
The market started to explode after the launch of the Apple iPhone in 2007. The smartphone changed the cell-phone into another computing device, just like a PC but with a small screen. You could use it to browse the web, and it had wifi to connect to home networks and the internet for free. Web service providers catered to the new market with mobile (and, later, “responsive”) websites, and apps.
Smartphones are now cloud-integrated devices. They are monitored and updated from the cloud, and the cloud is used to install and update apps, collect photos and data for longer-term storage, and to provide streaming media, messaging and other online services. These include intelligent assistants, such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. You can still buy “feature phones”, but if you use a smartphone, you’re using the cloud.
In the early 1990s, when sales of Microsoft Windows 3 started to take off, Microsoft had a vision of “Windows Everywhere”. Where some other firms had different operating system for different devices (IBM had at least five just for minicomputers), Microsoft intended to run everything on Windows. That meant Windows had to grow and adapt for different functions – hence things like Windows Server and Windows XP Tablet Edition.
With the world going mobile, Windows had to go mobile as well. Microsoft made that leap with the touch tablet-oriented Windows 8 and Windows Phone. Today, Windows 10 runs on everything from thumbdrive PCs, smartphones and tablets to laptops and desktops, plus the Xbox One games console. Some of Windows 10’s features have come directly from the smartphone world, including notifications, sandboxed apps, the cloud-based Windows Store and Cortana.
Window 10 also switched to the rapid data-driven software development that is common to mobiles and large websites like Gmail and Facebook. There will never be another “big bang” upgrade where Windows 10 is replaced by Window 11. Not everyone likes that, but Microsoft is doing what it has always done: moving with the times. It doesn’t want to be left behind, like IBM, or in the computer graveyard with so many others.
A few years ago, you could think of the PC market as a battle between Windows, MacOS and Linux, even though Microsoft had 95% of it. Today, the battle is between the three major ecosystems owned by Apple, Google and Microsoft. (Amazon is becoming the fourth player.) Each ecosystem bridges different devices, applications and services, including an app store. Each requires an account linked to an email address, though both Apple and Microsoft let you use another company’s email service.
Apple’s ecosystem is based on selling high-margin Apple hardware and, increasingly, digital media and services such as Apple Music. (Providing iTunes for Windows was a trade-off that was originally required to sell more iPods, and there’s also an iCloud app for Windows.) There’s not much Apple hardware to choose from, but it’s all intended to work together with iCloud.
Google’s ecosystem is based on doing everything online, preferably via its Chrome web browser on PCs, tablets and smartphones. It has marketed some hardware, including smartphones, tablets and Chromebooks, and it’s trying to ramp up its cloud platform. However, it still makes almost all of its money from web-standard surveillance-based advertising.
Microsoft’s ecosystem is based on selling Windows-related software and services, but unlike Google, it lets you work “on premise” with your own PCs, servers and software or online with Office 365 and OneDrive. Unlike Apple, it doesn’t care who makes the hardware you use. (Remember that Microsoft was the Mac’s biggest supporter when it was launched in 1984, and Microsoft Office first appeared on the Mac.) Today, Microsoft has dozens of apps for Apple iOS and Android smartphones and tablets, and it’s hosting Linux in its Azure cloud and in Windows 10. (See How to Install and Use the Linux Bash Shell on Windows 10)
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s mantra is “mobile-first, cloud-first” rather than “Windows Everywhere”, and that’s where he’s steering the company.
In sum, you can’t avoid the cloud completely, unless you give up your internet connection and swap your smartphone for a dumb one. Of course, you will have difficulty updating Windows 10, and might consider switching to Linux, which doesn’t have a consumer-oriented ecosystem.
If you plan to stay online and use a smartphone, then best accept that Windows 10 benefits from cloud integration and exploit the cross-platform apps and online services. There are far worse things to worry about, including what Al Gore called the web’s “stalker economy”, British and American government snooping, and the huge cybercrime industry.
Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com