Forecast Calls for Cloudy Skies

Once we called upon Zeus and Horus. Then we created machines to serve and rule us. Now we cast our eyes anew to the heavens to conjure up what we want.

What fresh magic is this? It’s cloud computing, shifting software from your office, desktop, lap, and pocket to remote data centers that you access through the Internet. Setting you free in one sense, yet also making it more difficult to escape the reach and watch of technology.

Discs are as dead as the Victrola: increasingly you’ll go to the cloud to download apps for your limited purpose, stream a movie, or look for extra server space.

It may sound a little nebulous, but one thing is clear: it’s clearly getting more overcast all the time. The worldwide market for cloud services is likely to grow to $148.8 billion in 2014 from $58.6 billion in 2009, according to Gartner Research. “The last time companies saw this big a shift in computing was when PCs entered the workplace over 20 years ago,” says Ben Pring, a senior research analyst at Gartner. In the next five years, companies will spend $112 billion cumulatively on software delivered over the Internet (a.k.a., “software as a service”) and comparable services, according to Gartner.

By November 2009, about 100,000 companies used cloud applications, according to Bruce Richardson, former chief research officer at AMR Research. In a May 2008 report, Merrill Lynch estimated that 12 percent of the worldwide software market would go to the cloud by 2013 and be worth $95 billion.  [Source: BusinessWeek, Check out the article for good examples of companies saving money with the cloud.]

Cloud computing isn’t new — Gmail, Flicker, Picasa, Dropbox, and streaming media are all cloud-based services. But storms are brewing as big players like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Salesforce compete for your business. Security is an issue — personal data stored in the cloud is under constant hacker assault, although security experts say having remote tech experts guarding their servers (and your information) is safer than you doing the job yourself. Data ownership could also be a problem if the owner of the server you’re using changes the rules and decides it can sell your uploaded photos, for instance.

Whatever happens, look for your PC and its operating system to be gone with the wind before long. Gone will be the hassles that long marked our days: installing software, protecting it from viruses, remembering where you stored information, losing everything when you forgot to back it up. You’ll continue to need access to electrical power (and long battery life), but much of what you thought you knew about computing is changing.

Of Laughter and Never Forgetting

Time magazine is about to name its “Man of the Year,” the person who has made the greatest impression on the previous 12 months. From A to Z, Julian Assange to Mark Zuckerberg nicely bookend the short list and frame one of the great struggles of our epoch: privacy vs. transparency.

The WikiLeaker from Down Under is likely to get the nod for publicizing information from U.S. classified documents. To his way of thinking, candid assessments written for a limited group of decision makers must be exposed as perfidious. Thus, WikiLeaks has informed the world that State Department functionaries think Hamid Karzai is a crook and Italy’s Berlusconi is “feckless, vain, and ineffective.” Uh, tell us something we don’t know.

At the other end of the alphabet, Zuckerberg schemed to tell Facebook’s corporate partners many things they didn’t know about users of his site. He seemed baffled why anyone would want to hold back their personal profiles from the world at large. What are these people afraid of?

For one thing, people don’t want to be commodities to be bought and sold (although that battle is probably already lost). More than that, people instinctively want to be able to control their reputations, which they can’t when information about them is (a) false or (b) once true, but no longer or out of context.

People cling to the idea that they can have separate lives: one for home, one for work, one for friends, and so forth. They also want to be able to reinvent themselves at will – which requires moving on from the past, forgetting, amongst other things, indiscretions that seemed amusing at the time. Yet how can we drop this baggage when the Internet shackles us to every comment or image associated with us?

“A humane society values privacy because it allows people to cultivate different aspects of their personalities in different contexts,” writes Jeffrey Rosen in his outstanding article in the New York Times Magazine in July. “At the moment, the enforced merging of identities that used to be separate is leaving many casualties in its wake.”

It’s not a theoretical issue. Three-quarters of U.S. companies conduct online research on job candidates, according to Microsoft, and seven of ten recruiters report that they have rejected candidates because of discovered photos, discussion-board conversations, or membership in controversial groups.

There’s plenty of grist for the investigator’s mill. Facebook has nearly 500 million members, 22 percent of all Internet users, who spend more than 500 billion minutes a month on the site. Its users share more than 25 billion pieces of content each month (including news stories, blog posts and photos), and the average user creates 70 pieces of content a month. There are more than 100 million registered Twitter users, and the Library of Congress recently announced that it will be permanently house the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006.

Now advancing facial recognition technology promises (or threatens) to locate photos of people you’re looking for on the web, even if not identified (“tagged”) in the photo. Social-network aggregator search engines will be combining data from various sources to rank people’s public and private reputations. Then there’s the new web site Unvarnished, where people can write anonymous reviews about anyone. People are already rated on their creditworthiness. Soon they may be judged and ranked on the reputation as parents, dates, employees, neighbors.

By “erasing external memories our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior,” writes Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in his recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.” The limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. He says “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

Here’s the irony: the internet was until recently seen as the great liberator. Hilary Clinton, now on the warpath against WikiLeaks, praised Google for empowering Chinese citizens with information about their government. Remember that New Yorker cartoon from the early 1990s: “On the Internet they don’t know if you’re a dog.” Now the leash is back. We know who and where and what you are, Rover. And we’re never going to let you forget it.

The remedies range from legal maneuvers of dubious value (such as lawsuits to force removal of slanderous information or “Twittergation”) to technological innovations – such as built-in expiration dates for data, controlled by the user. Or just being prudent to the point of paranoia.

Supposedly cavalier about over-sharing, the young are catching up to their elders in matters of privacy. A UC Berkeley study this year found that 88 percent of people between 18 and 22 believe websites should be legally required to delete all stored information about individuals.

Facebook could implement expiration dates. If it wanted to. It doesn’t, apparently.

Bad information, like bad news, has a greater impact, as any behavioral psychologist or journalist or PR rep will tell you. So a new industry has arisen to buried the bad news that can’t be actually eliminated. Companies like ReputationDefender flood the Web with positive or neutral information about their customers to rig Google search rankings, pushing the negative links to the bottom.

Whether Time chooses Julian, Mark (or even Sarah) as its emblem of 2010, the bigger story is that technology is rapidly moving us through numbered versions of the world. We’ve left the user-generated content world of web 2.0, and we’re being shoved into 3.0. Welcome to it.

It’s Google’s Universe, We Just Live Here. Find Out Where…

You know that people looking for particular goods, services or information find your website by conducting a search through Google. But do you know how it works? Of course you don’t, unless your last name is Page or Brin. The methodology and mathematical formula that drives the company’s dominant position in search is secret. Really, really secret. Now, in a move akin to stealing Coke’s recipe, PPC Blog has diagramed how it thinks Google search works. It’s worth studying [] to learn how your potential customers and readers might find you by rummaging around in electronic universe. Just remember that having a fully optimized website can’t deliver everything you need and desire. There’s also social media, a whole other galaxy to master.

A New Kind of Tweet

The Twitter micro-blogging service intends to mature into a formidable animal. Consequently, co-founder Biz Stone recently explained in his blog a new addition to the company’s aviary — Promoted Tweets. Translation: advertising.

It had to happen. Information may want to be “free,” but information providers and platforms don’t necessarily want to be, at least not forever.

Like other Tweets, the Promoted variety will be limited to 140 characters, and readers can respond to them or pass them along (“retweet”). The difference is, business and organizations pay to have placed at the top of relevant Twitter search results. They will be labeled as “promoted.”

Distinct from both traditional search advertising and more recent social advertising, promoted Tweets are start off as regular Tweets (they’re an “organic” part of regular Twitter). Promoted Tweets will also be timely, to connect the user in a real-time event, for example.

Much as Google does with unsuccessful AdWords, Twitter will drop a Tweet’s Promoted status if it doesn’t “resonate” with users (meaning they don’t respond to the Promoted Tweet in some way). Initial advertisers include Best Buy, Bravo, Red Bull, Sony Pictures, Starbucks, and Virgin America.

iPad Empties/Fills Pockets

With its new application-laden reading/gaming/writing platform, Apple has once again stuck it to the powers that be, or that were. For in addition to thumbing its digital nose at Flash-maker Adobe, the iPad will speed the destruction of the traditional news aggregators’ all-or-nothing pricing model.

It’s not going to do wonders for the sales of already established e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes & Noble’s Nook, either. That’s capitalism, baby.

There had actually been some talk (or hope) that the iPad would be the “savior” of newspapers by reinvigorating the presentation of these traditionally assembled editorial packages (and publishers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have their apps at the ready). But just as the sleek iPod (and its iTunes library) chewed up the already-in-progress disintegration of the record labels’ monopolistic pricing power, the iPad is also more than just a pretty face. It’s savagely opportunistic.

The Internet and its related technologies have disrupted many aspects of information gathering, selling, and sharing. Display is just one of these changes. The very business model for newspapers has been obliterated – now the competition is unlimited for information and its associated revenue. With its easy navigation and multitude of apps, the iPad accelerates this process.

Apple recognized that many music consumers only wanted one or two songs on a CD, and its under-a-buck-per-tune price made messing with pirated MP3 files not worth the effort. Similarly, newspapers might charge per section or per article, as Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, and others, have written.

Unlike cable companies that have successfully fought unbundling (for now…) newspapers are no longer local monopolies. But while consumers may be less and less willing to pay for the “news,” they might pay for a good filtering service – that is, a brand that guarantees consistent quality (vetted sources, professional objectivity, intelligent insight, smooth writing).

Rather than be threatened by the iPad and its ilk, publishers should be opportunistic themselves: how has Apple provided them with a new way to monetize their product? How will the advent of iPad-accelerated unbundling affect not just subscriptions, but the real media moneymaker — advertising?