What the hell is happening to me?

For the first time ever, I agree with something Richard Stallman says. See here. In a nutshell, he says the cloud is all about taking away your freedom and locking you into long-term contracts that you can’t get out of and which will exploit you terribly, which is why Google and others are salivating over it. He’s hit the nail on the head. The arc of this narrative — from the Original Borg (IBM) and its mainframes, to the Borg with Windows and Office, to the New Borg (Google) with its online advertising machine, its apps and search engine and phones and God knows what else. Stallman is thinking at the level of the individual, but imagine entire enterprises locked into long-term cloud contracts with service providers. Just think of all the little hooks and Velcro straps a cloud service provider can create to keep you locked in. For one thing, they’ve got your data. But think also of all the business logic, the customized apps created uniquely for you. Just look at what Facebook does to make it extremely painful for users to move. That’s a tiny taste of the cloud. The tradeoff, of course, will be that you’ll sacrifice a bit of freedom in exchange for convenience. Fair deal? Maybe. But I think Stallman is on to something here.

37 Responses to “What the hell is happening to me?”

  1. Nigel Kneale

    Ever since the days of “X drives” and “internet shared drives”, where hosts would offer vast swathes of disk space you can store all your data which you could access as easily as mounting a disk drive, I’ve been going “you what?” It was blatantly obvious back then that the moment you did that, you lost control of your data, and control of access to your data.

    And yet this idea has developed further via social networks and centralized apps and document storage.

    I’d have thought that Stallman was telling us all what we already knew. I just think that, outside of the enterprise area, no one really cares.

    And that’s pretty sad.

  2. Hank Sims

    So how does the switch get flipped, then? One day Flickr tells me I can’t download the originals of my photos unless I pay ransom? Google institutes a per-message fee for POP3 access? Like a bunch of Somali pirates?


  3. Bruce Walker

    This cloud stuff is really beginning to sound like Telco-speak. Perhaps, rather than the modern packet-based Internet dragging the Telcos and their usurious tariffs into the 21st century, instead the Telco-mindset is going to drag the Internet back into the 19th century?

    It already looks that way with the iPhone …

  4. Christian

    Although i use Apple’s flavour of cloud computing (MobileMe) and happily pay for it – i do so because of the benefits it gives me (syncing all my contacts, calendars) – i am right on track with Stallman and you Dan.

    Last week i thought about getting an EEE PC and something like that for rougher environments (my family does dirt bike racing) and store all data related to our hobby (lap times, packing check lists and so on) into Google Docs.

    SO I TRIED to take a closer look to google docs – guess what – it didn’t work in whole europe here. In the forums were tons of even enterprise level users complaining about not having access to their (at least partially) not backup data!

    So even if you think Google is NOT EVIL(!?) you might want to rethink about putting all your data out in the cloud. What happened to google docs last week? Well for me i don’t know, maybe they were looking in all the files for a clue why the Walll St. is crashing down? Or NSA scanned all the contents? I don’t care this was first hand prove for me NOT TO PUT any data of mine into cloud computing.

    For me the decision is made NOT TO DO SO in ANY future of my life.

  5. Éric

    I think this is what’s called a business opportunity. If it does get to the point where enterprises that opted into the Google cloud want out, some firm or other (Microsoft? IBM? Oracle?) will offer that service and call it GetOffaMyCloud(TM) or something.

    I’m an inspector for the Order of translators here in Québec and I’ve already had to tell a member to do something about her email. She uses GMail and had no local copy of her correspondence with clients. Did you know there’s no easy way to export the contents of a GMail account? Now she saves all her emails as PDF’s…

    That said, I use plenty of cloud apps. I just keep mission-critical stuff at home…

  6. TS

    Hank Sims says: So how does the switch get flipped, then? One day Flickr tells me I can’t download the originals of my photos unless I pay ransom? Google institutes a per-message fee for POP3 access? Like a bunch of Somali pirates?

    Doubtful? You think much too kindly of corporations. Apple’s online service used to be free. Now it’s $!00 a year. Here in Japan, Yahoo Auction was free — until Ebay pulled out. Now they charge a listing fee and 5% of sales. If Flickr thinks they can make more money charging you to download your photos than whatever their business model is now, well, they’ll do it in a heartbeat. Then on top of good ol’ American avarice, there’s all the tech screwups. Server meltdowns, Internet (in)accessibility, data theft, etc. Oh, and don’t get me started with corporations disappearing (Ashton Tate) or cancelling unprofitable software — after I’ve invested heavily in building internal systems based on software that no longer exists and won’t run on modern OS’s. No way I’m putting mission critical apps and/or data on the ‘cloud.’

  7. Will The Real Lastangelman Please Stand Up?

    RMS’s latest jeremiad will go unheeded as his cautions and finger wagging will go unnoticed and lost amongst the babble.

    I use the cloud but I back up my data constantly back here in reality land. It all fits on my iPod and Maxtor external drive, for now. I like the convenience but I don’t trust it for a second.

    People are lazy weenies. Kids especially will adopt to the concept quicker than water up thru a straw.MobileMe will get better. Google Live will grow like a supernova off the back of free and open source software. Windows Live won’t suck too much. People will pick and choose sides and stick to it.

  8. Mike Brittain

    I run a small web app for managing recipes online (http://onetsp.com) and I would agree completely. One of the most requested features I get is for some way to export all of the data that a user has entered, in case they ever want to go somewhere else. This would solve the issue of total loss of service, but doesn’t provide portability in many cases where competing services don’t have the options for importing data.

  9. Nigel Kneale

    “RMS’s latest jeremiad will go unheeded as his cautions and finger wagging will go unnoticed and lost amongst the babble.”

    RMS (and the FSF in general) have cried wolf too many times to be taken seriously these days, and together with their hare-brained schemes (filling up the Apple Genius Bars in order to open up the iPhone, anyone?) means that no one *should* take them at face value.

    Stallman’s important points in this case are only what everyone else have been saying for years.

  10. SamG

    The cloud stuff seems to be designed for and targeted at consumers – the clueless computer users. If personal storage devices were expensive, cloud could work as cheap storage. Since I can get 1TB worth of storage (portable!) on ebay (and frys), why should I even *think* of handing over my data (and my *personal* files) to the Cloud? Eventually, it will turn out that cloud does not make any sense (in $$$ terms) and then it will disappear in a cloud of logic, just like in the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

    People who are lazy to manage their own data will pay the ultimate price for it: loss of data or loss of privacy (which amounts to the same thing).

    Wait a minute. Isn’t banking a sort of a cloud which goes pooof occassionally? We need Cloud Insurance for the data! If you have more than 100K in the cloud, you will be out of luck (and sorry without being safe).

  11. Simon

    It’s hugely ironic that a big part of the PC revolution was as – you were saying – that individuals and businesses could finally wrest control their data and applications away from giants like IBM and now 25 years later, we’re all seemingly super-happy about giving over our data and applications over to giants like Google because the web is cool, AJAX is cool and Google is cool because they release things like a comic book about a web browser.

    I think that the closing lines of the Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ probably sums it up:

    ‘Here comes the new boss,
    Same as the old boss.’

  12. Rick


    I believe we’ll be able to cobble different services together in pieces. Google might handle one part of the cloud, but you’ll be able to choose other platforms for different parts.

    Example? You’re on Google, but you could still use Amazon web services. Someone doesn’t do a good job or doesn’t return emails in a timely manner, swap them out.

  13. Paul

    It’s kind of ironic that as the software industry increasingly tries to move to more service models, using energy utilities and grids as simple models to describe it, the Next Big Thing in those industries seems to be more self-sustaining, generate it yourself, and get off the grid.

    The great thing about SaaS is that your customers keeping paying a recurring fee every month. Hopefully, they forget they are and money keeps rolling in.

    Nobody seems capable of making product that people actually _want_ to buy any more. Everything is either subsidized by advertising that nobody wants, or paid for by a drip-drip fee that the seller hopes you forget about and keep on paying.

  14. Jeffrey

    As usual, Stallman is actually wrong for the same boneheaded reasons that Republicans are wrong about the invisible hand of the market being the most likely thing to put milk in the bottle of my two-year-old on a regular basis. It’s important to remember that Stallman is an ideologue; he’s the Karl Rove of freetardery. His vision is of a world where everything will be okay if we all just learn how to code and build our own computers from spare parts we find in dumpsters.

    The problem with “the cloud is evil” is that it conveniently doesn’t define what “the cloud” means. It’s a term (like “open”) that’s become so overloaded as to become meaningless. If I send an email through my ISP, is that using the “cloud”? (It may be, by Stallman’s definition, since I don’t have full control over my ISP’s email server.) If I run my web site on Amazon EC2, is that evil? By Stallman’s definition it may be, even though the site may be 100% freetard software from end to end and I can easily migrate it onto a server that I own at any time (because, unlike Google, Amazon’s hosting product gives users root access to their own servers).

    You see the problem here?

  15. GoodLife

    External storage, Maxtor, iPod, … wtf? you take that back and forth between work and home and everywhere else? not feasible these days, and besides, how many backups of backups of external storage do you keep? and it is probably safer in the could than at home on a DVD that cannot be deciphered anymore in a couple of months/years.

    I think cloud computing is a good thing if you use it right because it helps avoid duplication and brings costs down/frees money up for new and more exciting things.

    in terms of paranoia: yes, this is an opportunity – I wish there were a business that would offer backup and extraction of gMail/gApps/etc. – that is the way to look at it rather than going back to the mainframe days of costly hardware/software and operators/server and applications admins

    and what about encryption – if you do not like Google reading your email, use encryption with a technology that allows you to carry around your private key on stick (or start memorizing that bugger … a sequence of 2048 is not that hard to learn, and it is probably worth it, too)

  16. SamG


    Taking care of your data is no different than taking care of one’s own career, children, lunch, family, mustang, whatever. If you do not backup your important data regularly, your livelihood probably does not depend on this silly machine we call computer. I have chosen to keep backups going back five years and they “graduate” from my laptop, several (very) portable drives (pocket size), USB sticks, to mass storage monsters and finally to DVDs which are stored in a safe place. I still have CDs I burned on single-speed burner and they are still working. CDs can last forever if they are kept at the room temperature, away from excessive light. It pays to get a good brand of CDs/DVDs, not this cheap crap they are selling at the meat shop.

    Imaging my laptops is a snap and runs automatically on a weekly basis.

    Sure, I have stuff stored online, but that’s just another copy. At any given time, I can survive with at most 4GB of data (work + fun) and that can be carried on my keychain (or even on a memory card in my camera, if I decide to go “007″ for a day :) )))

  17. Roc

    Proprietary lock-in and painful migration are already the way of the computing world. Users and businesses alike haven’t wised up to vendor lock-in thus far. Why would anyone expect them to sit up and care now?

    Cloud computing is just a cheaper-out-of-pocket version of a mistake they’re already comfortable making.

  18. deathByChiChi

    What’s the non-cloud-computing alternative to Flickr? Run your own copy of Gallery? Maintain a server at a hosting facility? Manage your own server and try to keep up with the latest copies of the OS, Apache and PHP and stay on top of it to try to avoid getting pwned? Been there, done that. No thanks. I will happily share the photos that I want to share on a sharing service, and I will keep my originals on my laptop (backed up with Time Machine, thank you).

    As for businesses, any who are smart will be careful and maintain copies of their stuff and carefully consider what data they’re putting in hands other than their own. In theory, anyway.

  19. SamG

    @GoodLife. At one time, I had five 4GB USB sticks on my keychain. Now, I have four 8GB usb sticks. Fact of the matter is, once you cross 4GB it becomes difficult to maintain photos, music and the like. At that point, you have forgotten half the pictures you have taken and you start buying Pink Floyd again because you forgot you had it :) That limitation is no different with the cloud. With pictures and music (and lack of discipline in organizing them) and search only go so far.

    Videos are another story. I am keeping them on ultraphaser, antiproton blackhole usb drives (for added capacity).

  20. Poser

    No need to flip a switch, just dominate all development until there is nothing but cloud, then feel free to make it more lucrative with no incentive to remain appealing. There won’t be equivalent “desktop” options to revert to.

    And the consolidation of the cloud may happen sooner than later if a general capital crunch reduces confidence in the survival of lesser startups, driving all of us to Google because it’s too big to fail.

  21. Will The Real Lastangelman Please Stand Up?

    The cloud is inevitable (resistance is futile), but the propagators aren’t fishing for our hearts and minds on this one, it’s the impressionable kids and up and coming college age boys and girls.

    The cloud people want us store everything with them and trust them. How do you both trust and verify the cloud? I’ve had two several hour lockouts from Google to know better and anyone who has used MobileMe isn’t impressed, either. But eventually the kinks in the day to day stuff will be worked out. You can download your Gmail onto Thunderbird. But how long does anyone want to save a piece of electronic mail? I have Hotmail and Juno Webmail dated from 1998. Time to delete the old inbox. What you should teach your kids and grandkids is always back-up everything on a personal portable storage medium and use open file standards as often and whenever possible.

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