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Interview: NY Times Tech Blogger Brian Chen Answers the Question ‘What is the Cloud’?

| January 3, 2012
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What is this "Cloud" you speak of?

I’m old enough to remember when the dominant metaphor applied to the Internet was “The Information Superhighway.” (Now only people with AOL email addresses use that.) Snarksters like to say “The Internets,” and in 1997 my father, in all ingenuousness, referred to the web at least twice as “The Intercom.”

Currently, you hear a lot about “the cloud.” The Cloud this, the Cloud that. What the hell is it? some people would like to know.

Wikipedia describes “cloud computing” as “a marketing term for technologies that provide computation, software, data access, and storage services that do not require end-user knowledge of the physical location and configuration of the system that delivers the services.”

Great!

Huh?

Let’s turn to The California Report’s Penny Nelson, who tried to make the Cloud just a little clearer by talking to Brian X. Chen of the New York Times’ Bits Blog. Chen is also the author of Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future–and Locked Us In. (You can read sections of the book at Amazon).

Here’s the edited interview:

Penny Nelson

So what is this “cloud” we keep hearing about?

Brian Chen

It’s only starting to enter the mainstream now that Apple and some other players are offering cloud services of their own. But I’d rather describe it as a “magic pocket,” where you stick data in one folder or online storage solution so you can access it from anywhere with any device.

So let’s say I take a photo with my iPhone — that will also show up on my computer. I don’t have to do anything, connect any cords, it just kind of pops up. That’s what the cloud, or magic pocket does.

Or I might be using this service called Dropbox, which is a web-connected folder. I save my word doc in it and later I go somewhere to print it. Back in the day before we had the cloud, you had to save a file onto a USB drive then take the drive to where you wanted to print it. But now that we have the cloud, we can access that folder with our credentials on any computer and get the same file.

Penny Nelson

Why did this technology for most of us seem to spring up just recently, when it’s been available for so long?

Brian Chen

I think it just took a really long time to get this sort of service into mainstream and consumer consciousness. Different companies are executing the cloud in different ways so it’s taking some time to seep into people’s awareness.

The iPhone is helping to spark the zeitgeist of the Cloud and bring an understanding to it.

So besides taking a picture and having it show up on my Mac, I can also edit a document on my iPad, and that same doc will be edited on my iPhone or computer. The cloud ties my devices together; the thread that does that is the data that’s connected to the Internet.

Penny Nelson

I’m assuming this applies to non-Apple products as well…

Brian Chen

People have multiple devices and they want the same data on any one of them, anywhere they are. The cloud is the solution to that.

Absolutely. I’m only using Apple products as an example because iCloud is one of the easier services to describe. Apple is able to take ideas and concepts that have been executed earlier and redo them so that they’re easier and simpler for people to access.

I’d say it’s largely because Apple entered the game this year that the cloud is starting to enter consumer consciousness.

Penny Nelson

How significant have California companies and researchers been in developing the Cloud?

Brian Chen

Facebook and Apple have data centers around the country. But the pioneering and the innovation are being done in Silicon Valley. Google has been working on the Cloud for a long time. A lot of stuff we’ve been using for years is considered the Cloud. Google Docs is an online document creation and collaboration tool that’s in the Cloud. Anything that’s a storage service for the Internet, like Flicker, is considered the cloud.

Penny Nelson

Has there been a single company that’s most changed the landscape?

Brian Chen

It’s a whole bunch of companies executing different cloud strategies. Dropbox has been a key player in bringing the cloud to the mainstream. It’s mostly because they’re a startup that it’s significant. They’re not a giant like Apple or Google. They’re in San Francisco; the founders are in their 20s, from MIT.

The idea for the cloud from them came when the CEO wanted to save his college essay and put it on a USB drive. He took it to a printing lab and realized he’d saved the wrong version of the document to the drive. He thought there’s something wrong with this process. So they created Dropbox, which is basically a web-connected folder. They saved the documents in the folder, and that same version synchronizes two different devices. So over in the computer lab, he’s going to get the same version of that document and be able to print it.

California is definitely where most of the innovation in the cloud is happening. But I’m sure that a company like Samsung and other Asian companies are trying to think where they can compete in this area; I haven’t seen any movement on it from them so far though.

Penny Nelson

So what may be coming next?

Brian Chen

I think the next big step will be around the television set, thinking how to reinvent the way we consume TV. It’s something Apple is working on, getting something from the cloud and pushing it to your TV set, so that you can get the same content on your iPad, your iPhone, your TV, your Mac.

This would simplify the way we consumer TV content. In some ways, they’re already doing it with this solution called Airplay, where you can rent something on iTunes and stream it to your TV. But it’s supposed to get a little more significant in the way that third-party application makers are going to be able to do the same thing.

So let’s say ESPN made an application for the iPad over which they want to offer a lot of exclusive content — you’d be able to push that onto the television at some point.

This is the age of multiple connected screens; people have multiple devices and they want the same data on any one of them, anywhere they are. The cloud is the solution to that.

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