This post was originally posted in the Huffington Post.
Two young fish are swimming along when an older fish passes and says, “G’morning, how’s the water?” The pair continues swimming then one turns to the other and says, “what the heck is water?”
I always think of this joke when I hear or read about the “cloud”. The older fish is those of us that work or are otherwise engaged in the world of tech. The young fish represent everyone else—the kind of non-techies who must wonder: “what the heck is the cloud?”
In today’s brashly blue-hued and cloudified digital domain, it must be a difficult question to voice without feeling out of touch. The irony is that, like those two young fish, all digital users know exactly what the cloud is—they’ve been swimming in it since they opened their first webmail account.
Even though humans have always used metaphors to explain new concepts, particularly for digital technologies that lack a more identifiable physical presence, I hate the term “cloud”. But by the time 2015 rolls around, we need to check it into a nice retirement home with lake views and an around-the-clock canasta game.
During the early days of the internet, people talked about “the information superhighway” and though this, like describing cars as “mechanical horses”, was an overly simplistic analogy that would never last, at least you always knew it was a metaphor. “Cloud” is different because its popular origins as a marketing term fools people into thinking they’re dealing with something new.
Back in the 1960s, J.C.R. Licklider, a developer of the internet precursor ARPANET, envisioned an “intergalactic computer network” that, more prosaically, allowed anyone to access programs and data from any site. In 1999, Salesforce utilized the cloud concept as part of their efforts to essentially invent the software-as-a-service (SaaS) market. This was an extremely smart move as Salesforce’s business model of providing access to services rather than selling an expensive chunk of software was a major innovation and the metaphor helped potential customers to grasp the concept.
But by the time Microsoft and Apple brought the cloud to the mainstream with Windows Azure and iCloud, the term had become shorthand for connection. “Cloud” became a box to be checked, you had to—to paraphrase Portlandia—put a cloud on it. Especially when it came to visual design, where limp, blue, fluffy motifs basically became mandatory.
None of it is particularly helpful to the average person. Not only does it dress up the cloud as something different, it hides the true value of what so many of these companies do. If you get past the verbal obfuscation and actually explain the cloud to a non-techie, they will say, like the child exposing the emperor’s sartorial oversight, “isn’t that just the internet?”
We act like the cloud is this amazing new invention but really it’s just a new way of using what we already have. “Cloud” is really just a label for an industry looking to distinguish itself. In my world of file sharing and storage, everyone wants to know which company is the largest cloud storage provider. My answer always includes Yahoo! Mail, Gmail and Hotmail, whose hundreds of millions of users access messages and attachments via the cloud. These companies are the real heavyweights of the consumer cloud even though sometime they don’t act like it.
Many industries go through similar phases of introducing original ideas, explaining them with metaphors or new terminology and gradually dropping these terms as the idea becomes mainstream. Online shopping was once so innovative that we had to give it a name: “e-commerce”. The websites that sold you things were called “e-retailers”.
But today nobody calls Amazon an e-retailer. It’s an online shop and as its dominance grows, it’s simply becoming the place where humans shop (and quite possibly the company behind those delivery drones that have turned your leafy, bucolic neighborhood into a dystopian, robot-ridden nightmare).
The cloud industry has reached this level of maturation. There are sunny skies ahead so let’s stop all the cloud-washing and start talking with real meaning about its true value.
Later this year you’ll probably notice an increase in the prevalence of term, “cloud” and think: wow, that guy was totally wrong. But the reason you’ll hear so much about it in 2014 is that some cloud companies will be engaged in multi-million dollar IPOs. This merely represents the death throes of the term, the final raging against the light before its inevitable demise. Because quite frankly, when Wall Street and lawyers start getting involved, you know it’s time for the rest of humanity to get out of Dodge.
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