The Cloud Arrives
Software used to come in boxes from the store, just like crackers and pasta. Things have changed though. There’s now a clear trend toward cloud-hosted software. Instead of installing the software to your physical machine, you access it remotely. Servers contain the application, and your browser is the portal to access it.
Sidenote: It’s called The Cloud, but that’s mainly a marketing term. We’ve had servers and clients, and websites that run software and store data for a long time. Perhaps the term caught on widely because of timing. It just happened to be the popular term when the Internet made its way into everyone’s homes and pockets. It is a pretty convenient term that most people understand, even if the details vary from site to site.
Cloud-hosted software has an advantage that applications are always up-to-date. The company’s engineers take care of updating the system. Users get the current version each time they visit the website. This is enormously convenient. And these updates can happen hundreds of times per day. One downside is that an Internet connection is required. Another is that the application is completely out of your control. The service can disappear today, and you’d be shit out of luck. This is enormously inconvenient.
Just as popular are applications which are installed and run on your laptop or mobile device, but sync user data to the cloud. This cloud-backed storage has the advantage of being accessible from everywhere. Dropbox and Evernote are two great examples. I can access the same data on my laptop as I can on my phone. An Internet connection is required here as well. And the details about your data are also out of your hands. This can be good when it comes to redundancy, backups, security, and price. But it can be a concern when it comes to privacy, control, and who owns or can use your data.
A Hybrid Approach
Software like Wordpress is a hybrid. I don’t purchase or own the software, but I still have a lot of flexibility on how to use it. I can host with Wordpress the company, or I can run the application on a machine of my choosing, on my own terms. My blog runs on a server for which I pay. If I want to switch hosts in the future, that’s completely possible.
The Wordpress software automatically updates, which is helpful for keeping up with feature improvements and security fixes. This makes it a bit like a cloud-hosted service. It doesn’t use cloud-backed storage though. My data is stored in a database or disk on the server I rent. Wordpress does give me ways to export my data, which is important. I can avoid vendor lock-in, and also make backups. There are even plug-ins to automate backups to other locations, like Dropbox.
I love the model of Wordpress. Since it’s open source, anyone else can contribute to the project. Even if you don’t want to do that, you, as a user, take advantage of the contributions. You can host with Wordpress, which is convenient and helps support them. But you are free to do your own thing. You can tweak the software, run it on your laptop, or serve the site from anywhere you want.
It’s largely decentralized. Sure, there’s the organization which produces the software, but anyone is free to take Wordpress and make it their own. It’s fork friendly. Bitcoin is also decentralized. It gives a glimpse of what it’d be like to have a currency not regulated by a central government. That’s exciting for a lot of reasons.
Restoring Our Control
Centralized services do have benefits, but I can envision other software and services taking on the distributed, decentralized approach in the future.
Imagine if Facebook owned their social graph, APIs, and protocols, but took a distributed, decentralized approach to hosting, bandwidth, and storage. These costs could be spread across the user base, in exchange for giving the user more control. I wonder what this would do to Facebook’s operating expenses? There would be challenges, certainly, but it’d be nice for the option to exist, like it does with Wordpress. I’d feel more comfortable using Facebook if I knew the content was actually mine and I had more say in how it gets used.
One of the things I like best is that I can have my Wordpress blog under my
own domain. That’s not possible with many other, centralized services. I can
blog.kyletolle.com instead of
wordpress.com/kyletolle. I’d prefer any
software or service I use to fall under the umbrella of my online presence.
But, currently, most of my online presence is spread between the umbrellas of
many different services.
We should be eager for options to exercise authority, control, and ownership over the digital footprints we leave behind. Today, we can’t opt out of or partially agree to privacy policies or terms of services. You either agree to everything, or you can’t use the service, which leads to most users blindly agreeing to anything and everything. This doesn’t currently matter to most people, but what happens when more and more of our lives are under the thumbs of these third parties? Terms of service should extend both ways.
We currently throw our data into the ether and hope for the best. But data breaches happen daily. And they impact the organizations and companies we expect the most security from. Online security seems a joke, if these groups can’t even do it right. The real kicker is that their security lapses puts millions of people at risk of identity theft and fraud. Sure, they have a monetary cost to fixing their shit, but those impacted must deal with the fallout for years. Our social security numbers and credit card numbers and all the details of our lives are in the hands of… no one knows.
Decentralized applications are a peek into the future where people have more control over their destinies. It’d be a win even if a data breach only affected tens of people instead of millions at a time. Regardless, I’m curious to see how we augment or move beyond the cloud, and how decentralization spreads to other areas of our software, lives, cultures, and organizational structures.