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Cloud computing has taken a lot of hits lately, not all of which are deserved, and some of which are just flat-out misguided. The latest accusation — that cloud computing stifles software innovation — came at a grand scale via a New York Times column by Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain. Although provocative, Zittrain’s piece overlooks some important distinctions, by equating web applications with cloud computing and individual platforms with the entirety of the Web.
The recent Twittergate controversy, for example, is not so much an indictment of cloud computing as it is an indictment of storing important company documents behind what appears to be a guessable password. And, as has been noted before, there is a big difference between storing data with Nirvanix – a paid, enterprise-grade service – and storing files in Google Docs – a free, consumer-focused service. One could argue this point without even broaching the question of whether web applications even should be considered “in the cloud.”
It also is unfair to call out Facebook and other web “platforms” for stifling innovation and competition by regulating which applications can run on them. The correct analogy is not the web site as PC operating system, but rather the web as operating system. Developers and ISVs can write just about any application to run on Windows, regardless of whether Microsoft approves, and the same can be said about building new sites on the World Wide Web – the Internet’s OS, if you will. If you don’t like Microsoft Office, switch to OpenOffice; if you don’t like Facebook, use MySpace.
The one constant across all of these applications is that users are very limited in what they can do within the application’s framework. Most people still primarily use proprietary local applications running on Windows, and the only means of customization comes from the “Options” tab. Web sites like Facebook offer far greater customization — even going as far as to let users build applications — but in the end, the product and the burden of quality control still belong to Facebook. The same goes for Apple’s iStore. Why should we suddenly expect for-profit companies to let their products become free-for-alls?
The role of cloud computing in the web space is not to stifle innovation, but to enable it by making available the resources to run new, competitive, more innovative web sites/apps. Somewhere out there, a team of developers is building a new social media platform that attempts to overcome Facebook’s flaws, and they very possibly might rely on cloud computing to get it off the ground. Cloud providers don’t much care what sites run on their servers, so long as they’re legal.
New web platforms are not synonymous with the cloud; to the contrary, some (not all) owe their very existence to the cloud.