Why a Move to Cloud Computing Matters
For most of the 90s and the early 2000s the home PC served as the foundation for an incredibly generative computing platform. By generative I mean that this PC platform allowed for relatively easy innovation and modification. Pretty much anybody was able to install whatever software was available to them, either at a store or on the Internet, in order to modify their PC foundation to meet their needs and desires. At the same time, because the PC platform was so open, a great number of people were able to create programs to meet their needs and desires, and with the advent of the Internet these programs could easily be distributed to users all over the world who wished to install them.
During this period a set of social, economic, and technical norms were established regarding a user's ability to modify and define their personal computing platform. In general, users either purchased a finished piece of software or they acquired free (as in beer) software in order to modify the functionality of the PC hardware that they owned. The user knew what features he/she was acquiring and therefore, in theory, knew exactly what features his/her computing platform had and what activities occurred on it. Further, mostly due to the technical limitations of the time (especially the limitations of the Internet) as well as the ownership that users had over their computing platform, the norm of the time was that any changes that the software producer wanted to make to the software required some conscious act of permission on the part of the user, such as purchasing and installing an upgrade. Therefore, the user was fully aware of any changes that were occurring to his/her computing platform.
This paradigm is currently shifting. Beginning in the mid to late years of the first decade of the 21st century, the Internet became a feasible foundation for a cloud based computing platform. While the cloud has not yet replaced the PC as the favorite computing platform of society, users are recognizing the benefits of cloud based services, especially the link to a ubiquitously available network, and making use of cloud based services. As the cloud becomes a new foundation for a generative computing platform the question has been raised: so what?
The norms of the PC based computing platform developed because of user ownership of the foundation. That ownership brings with it a great deal of legal and economic power. As stated above, in general it was not possible to modify the computing platform that somebody owned with out the owner's permission. What is different about the cloud based computing platform is who owns its foundation. It is true that users still provide something of value to service providers, either in the form of recurring service fees or as providers of demographic information and an audience of the resulting highly targeted advertising. However, the economic and legal norm that is being established is that the service provider ultimately retains ownership of the foundation of the cloud computing platform.
With this shift of ownership we are seeing a great loss of power on the part of users to define their computing platform. Since service providers are now the owners of the computing foundation they no longer have to ask permission, or even provide notification, in order to make changes to their services. The ultimate users and beneficiaries of the computing platform are no longer directly involved in the creation of the platform that they will use. Instead, it is now the service provider who defines what features will be available on the cloud based computing platform.
Now the question becomes, will the service providers create the same computing platform that the users would have created? This question really boils down to another question: do service providers and users share the same motivations for defining a computing platform? I argue no. Users are motivated to create a computing platform that meets their needs and desires. The motivations of service providers, on the other hand, are more complex and harder to pin down. While the motivation of service providers does include creating a computing platform that meets the needs and desires of users, this motivation also includes sustaining and growing a business, which likely includes increasing profits derived from consumer use of services. These motivations have the potential to be in conflict. Thus, because of both differences in motivations and potential conflicts in motivations, it is likely that the cloud based computing platform that will be defined by service providers will differ, and therefore be less desirable, than a cloud based computing platform that would be defined by users.
Users are losing power and autonomy. That is the "so what" of a cloud based computing platform.