Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Cloud and You

In college I worked for the collegiate computer department, chaperoning any of the various labs that peppered the campus several times a week. I would arrive for "work," collect Student ID cards in exchange for a 5 1/4" DOS floppy, and then do my homework or play Ultima III. (Yes, I'm dating myself.)

One evening I was working in the lab that was located in the Finance building, when one young gentleman gave me his card and dutifully took his floppy disk to a computer a few rows back. Inserting the disk, he pressed the button on the computer monitor and waited.

And he waited some more.

And he waited even more, occasionally checking his surroundings to act like he knew what he was doing.

After 20 minutes, I felt sorry for this person who was obviously a Mac user and went over to show him that you also had to turn on the power for the computer.

Apple has consistently shown itself to be an innovator in design, whether in the grandiose things (iPod anyone?) or the tiny things (like having a single power button). And ask a result, the value of its vision has risen exponentially faster than that of its stock or any other measure of the company. It has always been considered the vanguard of "humanly designed" products, and it should be revered as a result.

Lately, and I use this term loosely since this isn't something that's happened during the past week or two, Cloud Computing has been all the rage. And at the forefront of this charge is Google with a stable of products that "run in the cloud" that are somehow amazingly easy to use.

Gmail? When this was first in beta as a "by invitation only" product, people scrambled to get invited to it. Now, it's the fourth largest email service.

Google Maps? The Blackberry version of this application has saved my skin on several occasions. And the seamless integration with your smart phone's GPS doesn't hurt either.

Google Documents? With the exception of a few bugs (such as the one that is currently preventing LinkedIn users to use the Presentations application) this handy replacement to commonly-used office productivity applications does much of what you need for free.

Google Voice?

What? You've never heard of it? You better start listening then. Google Voice is a new product that is finally bringing to reality the vision that I've had for several years: being able to use one number as a central contact point regardless of what phone you are using. Yes, call forwarding has allowed this for decades, and other, commercial services offer similar services. But this is Google doing it, and therefore it will be sexy.

Currently available by invite (at the time of this writing), it allows you to have a single number that will ring on your home, office, cell, and any other lines. This is ideal for small business owner that works out of their home who wants to be able to give out one number only instead of having to 1) give out their personal cell number and 2) make their customers have to guess as to which number they should call. Of course, there are several other features like automatic transcription of voice mail messages to email (tolerably accurate, I've been told...I'm still waiting for my invitation from "my connections"), etc. but the single number access is the only one that matters to me.

How does Google plan to pay for this service? I asked Alan Warren (who is officially listed as a Director of Engineering at Google but is someone I refer to as my "big cheese" there) about Google's propensity to develop amazing applications that are...well...free. Specifically, I have always secretly wondered if Google would be doing such altruistic things for the general public if it didn't have the advertising revenue that it gets (USD$21B dollars in 2008, according to its Investor Relations group). His response was simple: "there is a starter consumer version that we give away, yes. But the [business] productivity apps market is huge. And we don't give that away."

In other words: "who cares?" If Google makes money with these applications and I am legally able to use them without paying a cent then that is the ultimate definition of "win-win" in my opinion. Next week we will continue to look at Cloud Computing as it pertains to businesses and the opportunities it presents to them.

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