We’ve been down this road before

It's a road

So Google finally unveils one of its key directions going forward – cheap laptops running Google Chrome focused on cloud computing as the primary working area and local computing relegated to being the offline backup. No huge surprise. Tons of reports covering the news but Sarah Perez sums it up nicely on ReadWriteWeb:

…this initiative pushes forward many of Google’s agendas: get into an institution through its end users, not its admins, get more people online so they’ll click Google ads, and, the future is the Web, not the hard drive.

That’s how Office and friends first arrived (the first bit, no web for most back then).

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Photo: Taken by me! Travelling from Geneva to Annecy for a Microsoft offsite, many moons ago. The mountain is Mont Blanc, according to the taxi driver 🙂

Cloud Computing Priorities

CNet has an interesting write-up of a Goldman Sachs report looking into the shift to software as a service – Goldman Sachs: Shift toward cloud unstoppable.

The report includes a chart showing which applications are the main priorities for moving to being delivered as an online service via cloud computing. Web conferencing tops the list with 66% although I was surprised to see Email only make it to 4th place with 44%. Given the cost and effort spent on maintaining in-house email systems, often running without encryption and with no difference in management of purely internal email versus email sent across the Internet, shifting Email servers online seems a logical priority to save costs and improve service. Instead, salesforce automation (64%) and accounting/billing (49%) have both jumped above email and collaboration is just behind it at 43%.

Also interesting to see the vendor choice for online services – 67% of survey respondents using Amazon.com and 77% using Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud service (EC2) with VMWare dominating internal virtualisation, used by 83% of respondents.

Amazon and APIs

Following on from the last post – Evolving Web Business Models – three separate news items cropped up yesterday about Amazon. Whilst so much attention gets focused on what Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are doing, it seems Amazon has been one of the most successful at evolving its web business model.

The New York Times had an article – With a Kindle Hiring Spree, Amazon Gears Up for Battle With Apple. The article goes on to debate will Apple’s new iPad kill the Kindle or not.

The answer is somewhat answered in an article on TechCrunch – Kindle for Android Hits This Summer. Opening with the author commenting how one of his favourite apps for the iPad is the Kindle app and how it now looks like the Kindle app will also be available on the Android. Seems to me, Amazon is being pretty quick to leverage those APIs and get its product everyone. The Kindle is becoming less about the physical device and more about a portable mechanism for buying, reading and annotating books…

There’s the age old quote “In the pursuit of digging for gold, you want to be the business selling shovels…” Can’t remember the exact wording, or the source. It was first told to me by a business mentor… but I digress.

The final article from yesterday was from the SmoothSpan Blog – Amazon Stealing the Cloud. The blog post covers various statistics that show just how many businesses are using Amazon’s various cloud services. Amazon isn’t just leveraging APIs to support its retail business, the technology side of Amazon is providing both APIs and the platform on which to host and run them – the spades, the barn, the wheelbarrow… everything you could possibly need to go digging for gold.

Interesting times…

Private Public Sector Clouds

Data Center Knowledge has an excellent summary of the different contenders bidding to win cloud-computing projects within the public sector. Whilst US focused, some of the main players will almost certainly be adopting a similar approach with their service offerings to government agencies in other countries around the world.

It’s interesting to see the different types of international company bidding to run national government and military networks, for example:

  • Systems integrators such as HP and CSC
  • Software/hardware vendors such as IBM and Microsoft
  • Online service providers such as Google and Amazon

Microsoft and Google are both building dedicated government cloud platforms separate to their commercial data center offerings. IBM and HP seem to be building on a client-by-client basis, building private cloud platforms to service the Department of Defense and U.S. Airforce. Others like Amazon and CSC are partnering with niche government specialists to build out their services.

Cloud computing has found a logical fit within education, with the need to annually provision accounts for large numbers of users who are temporary for the duration of their education at a given college or university. I suspect the drive to move longer-term adult and social care services into the cloud, along with the more sensitive concerns surrounding military content and applications, will be a bumpier journey.

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Did the clouds just get darker?

Dark clouds over Bournemouth from freefoto.com

In February 2010 three Google executives were convicted of a privacy violation in an Italian court and received suspended prison sentences. The reason for the trial and conviction: they allowed people to upload a video to Google Video showing someone being bullied. It was two hours before the video was removed following complaints.

“It is like prosecuting the post office for hate mail that is sent in the post”

The BBC covers the story in more detail here.

The trial sets an interesting precedent and could have far-reaching consequences for social media and cloud computing services. In particular the costs to provide such services if content is supposed to be pre-screened and the viability for organisations to use them for business data. Will Internet Service Providers be held to the same level of account if an employee complains about data an organisation stores using online business services? China is not the only country with a government wielding local power to disrupt global Internet services. And although Italy is singled out in this example, Australia has been planning to introduce strict filtering controls that could restrict access to social networking sites. The UK is exploring how to prevent illegal downloads and considering blocking broadband access for those accused. The list goes on… Providers of online ‘cloud computing’ services will find more turbulence as they cross political borders.

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Image courtesy of freefoto.com licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License

Rethinking Office

You may or may not have noticed, Google has been rolling out some online services that challenge one of Microsoft’s key territories – Office. Google’s online version is Google Docs. You can use it to create documents, spreadsheets and presentations using nothing more than a web browser with an Internet connection.

Currently, Microsoft doesn’t appear to have an online version of Office available. If there is one, I haven’t found it. But searching for variations on ‘Office’ gets all sorts of junk. Tip for Microsoft. When it comes to having a version of Office available online, consider using the following URLs – http://www.microsoft.com/docs and http://docs.microsoft.com/ 😉

Here’s the interesting part. I’ve been playing with spreadsheets for a couple of ideas and one feature required me to delve into Google Docs for the first time. Whilst Excel 2007 was best for one solution, Google Docs was best for the other. That, I didn’t expect to happen.

Case 1: Excel 2007

The image below shows the Googleshare (What % of results containing one word also contain another) for various keyword combinations. The legend shows each primary word, the x-axis shows the secondary words, and the y-axis shows the percentage value for each combination:

Unsurprisingly, Apple gets a lot more love than anyone else. It gets more ‘bad’ too but that might be caused by references to the edible edition.

The data was created via a web query against Google. It’s actually a lot easier to create the data connections in Google Docs than in Excel, thanks to Google’s importXML function (it’s the reason I started trying out Google Docs), but Excel was better for playing around with the data once it was imported. The standard charts built in to Google Docs are limited in features and duller than dishwater. Net result for me – I’m now using Google Docs to test word combinations and the ones that generate interesting results are then reproduced in Excel to further analyse and visualise. (Side note: tried to do the same with Live search results but couldn’t find a way to extract the data)

Case 2: Google Docs

The image below shows what you earn in interest when investing £1,000 for 5 years in an ISA versus a normal savings account (ISAs have higher interest rates and are tax-free):

Except, it isn’t actually an image, it’s an interactive chart provided by Google Gadgets, that hook directly into Google Docs. And on top of that, I published the chart enabling it to be embedded here without anyone needing Google Docs to view it. Click Play to watch the visualisation. If the bubbles don’t change size, Click ‘Size’ on the right and select ‘Interest’. (Haven’t figured out a way to pre-configure the settings.)

You can’t publish elements from Excel to the web without using SharePoint as the web platform. And Excel doesn’t have currently have any funky interactive visualizations, like time lines and motion charts. In Google Docs, you simply select ‘Insert’ and choose ‘Gadget’ to access a range of interactive visualisations. And to publish them, click on Publish and you get a snippet of code that you can insert on any web page, no specialist platform required.

New ways of working with information

Whilst I’m not surprised that Microsoft is not keen to provide an online version of Office just yet – they have a revenue stream to protect whilst Google doesn’t – avoiding the inevitable seems to be a riskier strategy. The surprise from playing with Google Docs has been discovering features it has that the current version of Microsoft Office can’t do.

Google has its challenges too – like finding a revenue stream for Google Docs. Unless relying on advertising revenue generated from the search side of the business is considered enough… that thought should freak out Microsoft. What if Google Docs is more about ‘brand Google’ than revenue?

Online vs Offline

One of the big arguments against using browser-based services has been their lack of offline capabilities. You typically need to be online via an Internet connection to access content. This is beginning to change. Google has recently announced that you will be able to take Google Docs offline. And they are by no means the only service provider planning to go down this route.

But here’s the rub. I hate using the browser offline. I don’t know if it’s just me or if others feel the same. Working within a web browser is all about being connected to the Internet. I accept certain limitations in the application, such as: a fixed-size input area like the one in Blogger that I’m using to type this post (ditto for writing emails); clunky in-page menus with limited options; missing features. I don’t want to take those limitations with me offline. When I need to be offline or use advanced features, I want proper applications. Even for reading blogs. The one application that is never opened when I’m on a plane is the web browser.

What should Microsoft do?

Three things I would be bleating on about if I still worked there:

1. Provide common gateways between products and online services

Help is already integrated (you can download templates etc. from Office online). Now it needs to be at a natural extension for all features. ‘Insert Chart’ should include the option to go online and access new Chart types, as they become available. If Microsoft is serious about their ‘software plus services’ strategy, all products need the ability to interact online and integrate incremental enhancements. The motion chart used in this post comes from Google’s acquisition of Gapminder Trendanalyzer – see end of post for a much better example. Microsoft has demonstrated a similar technology at its annual TechFest (where MS Research shows off their projects) – DynaVis. Goodness only knows when we’ll get our hands on it. Holding features until the next product release is no longer a good strategy…

2. Make it easier to share work created in Office on the web

And that does not mean SharePoint. At the moment, to publish elements of Excel online requires SharePoint (and not just any old SharePoint, the most expensive version – Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 Enterprise Edition). Not necessarily a problem for collaborating within an organisation, if you’re deploying SharePoint, but it means a limited audience. It is easier to create stuff in Google Docs if you want to publish on the Internet. And what happens as people start to publish more using Google Docs? Others start asking where they can go to get the same features, things they can’t do within Office… I’m not saying ditch integration with SharePoint, but it shouldn’t be the only option.

3. Get an online edition of Office out there for people to start using

Online services aren’t necessarily replacing traditional applications, they are creating new ways of working with information. Ways that might not come up in focus groups and product planning. Not having an online service risks being late to a game you are supposed to lead. A big win for Google Docs has been enabling people to collaborate simultaneously on spreadsheets in real-time over the Internet. In this scenario, browser (and online service) is best because all collaborators are, by default, using the same version of the software and spreadsheet. They don’t need to purchase, download or install anything to participate. But when it comes to features, people don’t want full Excel inside the browser – it would be too complicated. Equally, I’m not convinced people want to tolerate browser limitations all the time. Somebody who provides a marriage between the two environments might just be onto a winner. About that software+services strategy…

I always thought SharePoint was key to securing the future for Office. Now I’m not so sure. Too much of the current Office Live strategy appears focused on using SharePoint as the hosting platform for all things web-related to do with Office, whilst Office carries on doing what it’s always done. People are using Google Docs not (just) for a cheap spreadsheet in a web browser, but for scenarios that benefit from the spreadsheet being in that web browser. Here’s a thought. Many organisations will not use Google Docs because it is hosted on the Internet. Imagine if Google decided to add Google Docs to their Enterprise Search Appliance…

[Disclaimer: I used to work at Microsoft. I’ve got a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with Microsoft. I saw a very early preview of an alpha version of the SharePoint bits in Office 14 (the next release) last year under NDA which means it in no way influenced this post. This little splurge came from an hour playing with a spreadsheet in Google Docs and being surprised that it did somethings better than Office 2007 and SharePoint. It’s the first time I’ve seen Office in the same light as mainframes when client/server entered the workplace. They didn’t start by replacing the core mainframe applications, rather they took over the functions that mainframes had introduced – e.g. spreadsheets, email – and were doing badly…]

Now, for a far better example of the benefits of motion charts:

Direct link to TED talk if it doesn’t display above

[Update: 27 Apr 08] A Google Docs vs Office comparison has been posted at GoogleSystem – Google Docs Lives to Share the Words

Technorati tags: Google Docs; Microsoft Office

The Anti-Cloud

As cloud computing becomes more pervasive and mainstream, it is likely an increasing quantity of our information will exist only online, on servers managed by someone else. That has its downsides.

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a swine of an act. In essence, a copyright owner can issue a takedown notice to a web site owner or, more likely, the Internet Service Provider (ISP) hosting the web site when they believe their content is being misused by the site. It costs virtually nothing to issue a takedown notice. If the recipient chooses to challenge the notice, they have to challenge it in court = legal costs. Lots of them. As a result most people, especially ISPs, comply with notices regardless of their accuracy. This can be a problem if you are trying to publish content about an organisation that doesn’t want you to publish…

There are two sides to most things in life. If we have cloud computing, can we also expect to see anti-cloud computing at the fringe? An article in The Observer – The Brit dishing the dirt – about Nick Denton and his controversial Gawker gossip blog provides an anti-cloud quote.

‘We actually own our servers, which means we decide what stays up. That’s why we didn’t have to remove the Tom Cruise video. There’s no service provider telling us what to do.’ – Ted Plunkett, Gawker

Whilst YouTube complied with requests from the Church of Scientology to remove a certain video involved Tom Cruise, Gawker has kept the video online. It has been viewed more than 2.5m times.

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Technorati tags: DMCA