|Topic:||The cloud’s impact on society|
John McEleney is CEO at CloudSwitch. Prior to joining CloudSwitch, John McEleney was CEO of SolidWorks Corporation and held management positions at Computervision.
John McEleney has a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Rochester, a master's degree in manufacturing systems from Boston University, and a master's degree in business administration and marketing from Northeastern University.
The cloud is driving an explosion of innovation with tremendous social, scientific, and business benefits. New collaboration models are changing the way people fund projects, launch businesses, and work together. Easy access to enormous computing power is allowing both large companies and small start-ups with limited resources to test their discoveries. The real impact of the cloud is about democratization and equality.
Everybody’s talking about the cloud, but much of the discussion has focused on technical issues – how it works, how to connect to it, and what makes it such a powerful, flexible resource. I’d like to step back and examine some of the ways that the cloud is making an impact on our lives.
In a very real sense, the cloud is about democratization and equality, about giving people a voice, and also the power to get things done. We’re seeing this pattern with global communities and new collaboration models that are changing the way people fund projects, launch businesses, and work together. We’re also seeing it through easy access to enormous computing power to allow both large companies and small start-ups with limited resources to test their discoveries on an equal footing.
The cloud is already impacting our lives in many important ways, and interesting trends are taking shape across wide areas of society. The following are some examples of what I mean.
Closing the digital divide
You may have heard of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative, aimed at designing a computer cheap enough to be within reach of children from the world’s poor countries. It was a noble idea, but unable to live up to expectations. It was a very hardware-focused view of the world, built with non-standard technology that was unfamiliar to people outside the lab where it was designed. A major inhibitor was the limited selection of software available, as well as how to distribute it, how to install it, how to maintain it, and what licensing was required.
One Laptop per Child was a model trapped in the past that’s been leapfrogged in a technology jump with the developing world leading the way. It’s analogous to telephone land lines, which are ubiquitous in the developed world but don’t exist in much of the developing world and probably never will. Rather than building a land line infrastructure that’s become obsolete, countries are going directly to mobile because it’s a much cheaper and easier way to provide coverage.
The cloud provides a similar wholesale leap over the PC model on which OLPC was based. Rather than a specific laptop design with many technical constraints, now all you need is access to the web, and an endless variety of free software is at your fingertips. You still need an access and display device, but these devices (i.e., mobile phones) are everywhere, and they’re constantly getting smarter, faster, cheaper, and more versatile.
Communication: everyone gets a voice
New communications models such as blogs and Facebook have toppled governments, launched and sunk products, built and ruined reputations, and given everybody a voice. Now everyone has their own printing press, their own microphone, their own television station to spread their message to the world.
The cloud has upended traditional communication models, and the world is changing as a result. It the past, communications was one-to-many, whether for newspapers, radio, TV. It was the way companies give information about their products and governments communicated with the populace. Today the model has been inverted: now we have many-to-one communication (think Twitter and Facebook), where the page owner can issue a message, and hundreds, thousands or millions of people can respond. The result is a new transparency as people communicate with politicians, pop stars and anyone on the public stage in a very open way.
This communications inversion can even influence political debates, with implications that are still not fully understood. One recent example was the U.S. debt ceiling crisis, where politicians shared their thoughts on social media as negotiations dragged on. In the past they would have met behind closed doors until the deal was done; this time they used Facebook and Twitter daily to make their case to the public, and gauged the reaction before the next meeting. Whether that approach is good or bad may depend on which side of the debate you’re on, but it’s another example of how the cloud is changing the way we interact, with very real consequences.
Education: innovative instruction without barriers
Another area where the cloud is making an impact is education, where innovative teaching tools and reference materials allow educators to stretch their precious budgets. For example, consider a tool like GoogleEarth – it’s not just a geography resource; students and teachers can add to it with pictures and links from their community.
It’s also possible for anyone with an Internet connection to get high-quality instruction at any level. One great example is the Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org ), dedicated to providing “a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.” With thousands of educational videos, along with tests and teaching aids, it’s the largest collection of instruction on the Internet. Content is delivered in a conversational style in 10-20 minute chunks designed for the Internet that are much more engaging than a typical video of a physical lecture.
Khan Academy is another example of democratization enabled by the cloud, allowing people from an underdeveloped region (or anyone who would otherwise not have the opportunity) to get superior educational material at no cost. Greater awareness is another benefit: in the past, discovering these instructional videos would be a slow, uneven process, typically involving physically attending conferences, or word of mouth. Today, thanks to social media, a great resource can quickly go viral, allowing students and educators to discover it on a massive scale.
Science and engineering: speed to market for breakthrough products
Years ago, if you walked into a mechanical engineering lab, you would see strain gages, gears, motors, and the like. In an electrical engineering lab, you’d find breadboard circuits and oscilloscopes. In a chemical engineering lab, you’d find beakers and Bunsen burners. Today, in any engineering lab regardless of specialty, you’ll more likely to see racks of computers since the complexity of today’s scientific and engineering problems is far beyond the capabilities of traditional tools. Breakthroughs are based on modeling and simulation that require massive amounts of computing power. The cloud provides ready access to that power, on a highly efficient pay-as-you-go basis.
This flexibility can be crucial for product development, as well as the fortunes of the company driving it. One example is the development of breakthrough drugs, where every day can represent millions of Euros in sales and recovery of investment. If a pharmaceutical company needs to simulate how a promising new medication interacts with 16 million proteins, the analysis could run for weeks on their internal systems, tying up resources at enormous cost. The public cloud provides an alternative, giving scientists access to hundreds or thousands of servers, for a day, a week, or as long as they’re needed.
Cloud computing is advancing scientific progress in another way. Where previously only the largest companies could afford their own massive computer clusters, immense processing performance is now within reach for any small research team or individual with a brilliant design they want to bring to life. The cloud democratizes computing performance, and everyone benefits.
Community: crowds at work
There’s a community aspect to the cloud that’s changing the way products are designed, projects are funded, and work gets done. This is the concept of crowdsourcing, enabling new forms of collaboration for people who share a common interest or passion, without geographic constraints.
One example is 99 Designs (www.99designs.com), a marketplace for graphic design that connects designers from around the globe with customers seeking high quality design services. The approach is based on contests, where the customer describes what they’re looking for and designers compete to come up with the best concept. The customer then hires the winner to create the final design. Customers get access to a global community of affordable design talent, while designers get work opportunities not previously available.
A completely different model is Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com), providing a new way to fund many different types of creative projects. Kickstarter projects enable people to do something they love that an online community considers worthwhile – build a statue, organize a dance troupe, make a movie, or any number of creative endeavors. Projects unfold through blog posts, photos, and videos as people bring their ideas to life, and must be fully-funded before any money changes hands. In return, backers get creative mementos: a concert in their backyard, dinner with the cast, their faces painted into a mural, credits in a movie, etc. These are just two crowdsourcing examples – new models are emerging constantly, allowing people to collaborate in ways we haven’t seen before.
There’s much more to come
Some of us can remember the early days of computing, where everyone had a ‘dumb terminal’ that was connected to a mainframe for processing and storage. Then in the eighties, the PC brought processors and storage to our fingertips, providing the focus of innovation that lasted decades. Now the pendulum has shifted again, with data, applications, and computing power recentralized to make those resources available to everyone. But unlike in the past, the cloud allows users – individual, companies, and global communities – almost unlimited creativity in how they how take advantage of it.
The result is an explosion of innovation with tremendous social, scientific, and business benefits. The most exciting thing is that the developments described here are just the beginning.