Virtual Consumer Sep-Oct 2010

Silver lining

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Sep-Oct 2010

Before the invention of the microcomputer in the 1970’s, computers were giant power-hungry machines that took up lots of space and cost a great deal of money. Few people got access to a computer of any sort and most that did would have to share it with many others.

The arrival of cheap microcomputers meant that people could have a computer to themselves. The Mac and Microsoft Windows ‘point-and-click’ interfaces made them easy for anyone to use. Computing was democratised, no longer the preserve of data processing departments run by experts; suddenly anyone could become a computer expert. Even in large corporations where data needed to be shared between many workers, this was done using networks of desktop PCs, which eventually replaced the old mainframe centralised systems.

At the same time, while microcomputers run on much less electricity than the old mainframes, the total power consumption by the world’s computers has been growing at an alarming pace – partly because of the sheer numbers, but also because they need more electricity as they become more powerful.

Now all these trends look to go into reverse. A completely new model has been sneaking up on the computer industry.  With ‘cloud computing’ – as it is usually called – you run software on a remote ‘server’ computer instead of on your own PC. Using an ordinary internet browser like Firefox, your computer acts as the input and output device – a bit like the computer terminals in the days of the mainframes. The availability of high-speed broadband internet access means that users get the performance and ease of use they expect from software run on their own machine. Cloud computing concentrates computer power back at the centre on banks of servers in data centres run by people like Google. It has the big advantage that the software can be continuously improved without having to send updates to users’ computers.

This development has its ironies and contradictions. It has allowed Google, with its free-to-use apps like Google Docs, to begin a sustained challenge of Microsoft’s dominance over the software people use day-to-day. That gives more freedom of choice, but leaves power in the hands of large corporations. It means we need more power-hungry data centres – and yet cheaper, less powerful computers can be used to access sophisticated software. This could result in less electricity consumed overall. Because documents are held centrally where they can be manipulated simultaneously by many people, cloud computing greatly facilitates collaborative working.

The advent of new ultra-fast ‘fibre-to-the-home’ networks will accelerate the growth of cloud computing. John Gage famously claimed that ‘the network is the computer’- now his prediction is coming true. Let’s hope the cloud will have a silver lining.