I have never been a fan of Microsoft, but as the company has become less of an all-conquering juggernaut, I’m starting to see something valuable in its approach to computing which is rapidly being lost in the world outside the increasingly insular Redmond walls.
The last ten years have all been about web platforms, server-side applications, cloud computing: a sort of modern return to the mainframe. Microsoft, on the other hand, continues to be all about the personal computer. Of course they are trying to play in the new world too, but Microsoft still fundamentally sees the network as a service for the PC.
Contrast this with Google’s new CR48 laptop, a device so unstylish, so unremarkable, that it is clearly nothing more than a viewer for the network. The computer is not interesting, Google is trying to tell us: all that matters is the data on the network.
They’re right, of course, and this approach has a lot going for it. Why shouldn’t everyone delegate system administration to the professionals? Why shouldn’t everyone keep all their data offsite all the time, where it’s invulnerable to accidents? Why shouldn’t you be able to get to everything from anywhere, no matter who happens to have paid for the piece of hardware you’re using to get it?
Google, as a company, gives me all the warm fuzzies Microsoft never could, but there’s something wrong with the future they seem to be building, and I can’t completely get on board. The problem with the network is that you don’t own it, you can’t control it, and you are therefore at the mercy of whoever does own it and control it. Once your data lives on someone else’s machine, you have to trust that someone to take care of it, and no matter how reputable, that someone will never care about your data as much as you do.
The Google of today appears to be an extraordinarily intelligent, farsighted, responsible corporation, but organizations change over time as people come and go. Will the Google of ten years from now be as trustworthy? I doubt it. Google is vulnerable to pressure from various governments; this will not change unless they recruit an army and set themselves up as an independent state. Google is not accountable to its users, but its shareholders; this will not change unless they commit a spectacularly unprecedented act of corporate suicide and turn themselves into some sort of user-driven non-profit. Organizations change, but data is permanent, and I am not willing to extend my trust to all the possible future Googles as well as the current one.
I am picking on Google in part because they are the biggest, the smartest, and the most ambitious; they are pushing this new frontier farther than anyone else, and their projects make it easiest to guess where we will all be a few years from now. I’m also picking on Google because they are also the most obviously benign of our grand technological overlords. There are other cloud services, other thin-client projects, and the situation there looks more grim. Amazon booted WikiLeaks off of EC2 the moment they started to look a little inconvenient; they’re certainly not going to stand up for anyone else. Apple, lovely as their design work is, has an even more strongly paternalistic little walled garden going with their iPhone and iPad; I’ve been a Mac user since 1985, but I wouldn’t trust Apple with my data.
I understand the economic forces that are pushing the future in this direction; I just don’t like the direction very much. I have smart friends at these big companies who are working hard to create enormously powerful tools that will change the world for the better, and I wish I could be as wholeheartedly enthusiastic about their work as I believe their efforts deserve. The irony is that the move toward a Web-centric world has cost us the decentralized freedom of communication that the Internet originally offered.
Decentralized peer-to-peer services are the way out of this trap, which is part of the reason governments and organizations dependent on governmental coercion find them so unpleasant. Every central server is a vulnerability, because governments or greedy corporations can interpose themselves as gatekeepers; every service that depends on a central server is thus dependent on their blessing, or at least their indifference.
How can we re-engineer the web so that every node in the network can participate in the cloud system? How can we build something like EC2 or Azure that cannot possibly be shut down by anyone, no matter how large their army or how deep their pocketbook? It’s a hard project, and the economic model is a far bigger challenge than the technical one, but freeing our communication infrastructure from the threat of corporate or governmental interference is the most important project of the 21st century.