Dreaming of the Cloud
Your predictions about the future of the Internet.
This is part of Farhad Manjoo's continuing series on the future of innovation. Read the series introduction, Manjoo's stories on the future of mobile gadgets and the future of the Internet, and readers' predictions on the future of mobile devices.
Last week, I tried to make peace in an ongoing geek war—the battle between folks who think the Web will be killed off by downloadable apps and those who argue that apps are just a passing fad. The more likely scenario, I argued, is for apps and websites to become more intertwined. The future of the Internet isn't a choice between these two poles. It is, instead, the story of network connectivity infecting every corner of our lives. Apps and websites will increasingly look to servers in the "cloud" to store and process data. By 2016, the specs of your tablet and phone won't matter all that much because they'll get all their functionality from far-away servers.
Many readers were skeptical of this idea. Again and again, people pointed to the limitations of today's Internet infrastructure in the United States—we don't get coverage everywhere, and the coverage we do get is slow, expensive, and offered under onerous terms (like the monthly bandwidth caps that some broadband companies have begun instituting). Readers also mentioned the unresolved legal and policy issues surrounding the Internet—might the lack of network neutrality, for instance, hamper the future I outline?
I've excerpted the best reader comments below. (I have made some light edits for lengths and clarity.) Let's continue the discussion: What do you think of these criticisms? And how do you suspect the Internet and the Web will change over the next five years?
Greg Kopczynski: There are still way too many times when I find myself without an Internet connection to imagine that in the next five years things will change that much. In the last five years, my Internet connections have gotten faster, but also more expensive, and I've reached a threshold where I don't want to keep paying more every year for what amounts to little more than faster downloads.
Don't misunderstand. I see the potential for things to be very different within five years, and I agree that they probably will be in places like Korea. But whether you are talking about broadband providers or cable providers, their priority is to milk the most money out of their customers at the lowest cost to them. And that does not bode well for an evolution in the way we use computers.
Liz Calkins: I don't know, am I the only one for whom a significant chunk of her web browsing is various hobby sites, other niche sites, personal sites, and similar "amateur" things? How are apps going to replace those? I mean, forget all the technological debate—any "the web is dead" prediction fails just due to the fact that there's more to the web than just the big commercial sites that can afford to make apps. A lot more.
Bryan Forst: "The network is the computer" is bad news for developing countries. It used to be you could bring in high-end computers and you could use their benefits. If everything is in the cloud it now requires the country to install support for true broadband in cities and villages. A much more difficult task ...
hw2084: Wireless broadband technologies like WiMAX and 3G/4G could make deployment in the developing world a lot easier. Look at the explosion of the cellphone market in China, for example. Much of the growth is from people in rural areas. Besides, big corporations are too paranoid to let critical apps live on the cloud, so there will still be a market for regular applications.
A.A.J.: Installing broadband is, in fact, a much easier task for developing nations than installing a basic wired telephone line. Witness the spread of cell phones across Africa and India ... places that have lacked telephones for decades are suddenly connected. While those places may be slower to adopt 3G and 4G, the greater difficulty lies in maintaining an unbroken string of wires and telephone poles.
Oluseyi: Local resources will continue to grow in speed and size faster than network capacity. This limits the usefulness of the cloud, and, in fact, most cloud applications need to leverage local resources (via caching, etc.) to deliver adequate performance.
You give the example of video editing in the cloud, which is fine in terms of the user experience aspect since OnLive handles gaming just fine. The problems will be with video data transfer. If I capture raw footage with my digital camera, I'll first have to upload it to the cloud to let my "Picasa Video" web application start working on it. Considering how large video files can get and how slow uplink connection always is in relation to downlink, that's a major bottleneck. Until we arrive at the point where all of our devices are networked and transparently transferring their data "into the cloud," so that we as end users have no bottlenecks; local storage, processing, and applications will remain absolutely essential to computing.
Apps aren't going anywhere, but neither is the web. For uses where we consume discrete amounts of predominantly inbound data, like reading an article on Slate, the web will remain extremely competitive in the near term, and will likely win in the long term. (I've downloaded far more bytes from Slate than I've uploaded to it, despite my wordy comments!) However, for uses where we interact transformatively with substantial amounts of data, particularly over several iterations prior to publishing, or where we consume sustained data streams (music and video), apps will continue to thrive for many years to come.
Jeff C: Farhad is correct about the co-existence of the web and apps. The advantage of the web is that it has standards that can cross all operating systems. Even with the mish-mash of standards, developers can quickly build a website that can reach anybody. Apps have the advantage of a specialized interface for the task at hand. My bank's mobile banking page works great no matter what device I use.
As for always-on access and moving everything to the cloud, I think there is some overreach. For more than an hour each day I am disconnected from the mobile network. This is when I commute on the subway to work. What if my Kindle app required a constant connection to the net to function? There has to be an in-between—some local storage "cache" of my cloud files as well as cloud access. Otherwise my phone is a brick during my commute to and from work, not to mention for people living in rural areas.
Matthew: I, too, can see a future where we all work and live "in the cloud," but our network speeds will not be able to support this. Right now I have a few options for broadband access: Time Warner Cable and Windstream DSL, which both top out at about 10mbits/second, and Verizon 4G, which I believe tops out about 12mbits/second. I don't see those speeds getting better anytime soon. But the bigger problem will be the caps. As another person pointed out, AT&T caps iPhones at 250mb and makes you pay more for anything above that. The broadband providers will be the ones holding us back, and the barriers to entry are too high to have any real competition in the marketplace. Until that mess gets sorted out, I'll keep doing my work and storing my data locally.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.