The tech world seems to move in spurts and spasms, and right now we’re in the middle of the “cloud” wave.
Personally, I find the term “in the cloud” pretentious and annoying. Don’t they just mean “online?” Yes, I realize that computer professionals are referring to something much more specific — “data and application software stored on remote servers,” for example — but the world’s marketers and P.R. people seem to think that “the cloud” just means “online.” (“Now you can buy your toiletries in the cloud!!”)
In my Times column today, for example, I reviewed the first Google Chromebook: a laptop with no hard drive, no software programs on board, no files or folders, no traditional operating system. All it does is connect to the Web. Your files, your programs, your e-mail and your photos are all “in the cloud,” meaning “on Web sites.”
Then there’s Apple’s new iCloud initiative, which it announced last week and plans to offer later this year. It’s a free service that syncs your e-mail, address book, calendar, bookmarks, iBooks, app purchases, song purchases and photos among your iPhone, iPad, Macs, PCs and the Web. Take a photo with your iPhone, and it shows up automatically on your computer and iPad. It also backs up your iPhone and iPad automatically over W-iFi each day.
Those aren’t the only mega-trends these days, either. Look at the enormous shifts in TV and movie watching. Those, too, are raining down from “the cloud.”
And our phone calls. More and more people avoid using up their cellular minutes by relying on the Internet to carry their voices, using apps like Skype and Line2.
These mega-trends are all great and exciting and money-saving. Unfortunately, they all involve huge transfers of data to and from the Internet. And that means that they’re about to run into another, far less exciting mega-trend: data caps.
Yes, I’m talking about the new era of Internet data limits. All of these mega-trends consume enormous amounts of bandwidth. All of that uploading and downloading, all of that syncing, all of that cloud computing assumes you have a fast, capacious pipe to the Internet.
But your cellphone company doesn’t want you to have a fast, capacious pipe. There’s not a single cellphone carrier anymore that offers an unlimited data plan at full speed. T-Mobile gives you unlimited data, but if you exceed a certain threshold, your connection is automatically slowed down. And a few lucky AT&T iPhone owners still have unlimited plans, grandfathered in from the olden days — but I’ll bet you that’ll go away, too.
O.K., that’s cellphones. You can understand the cellphone carriers’ point of view. All of these iPhones and Android phones use enormous amounts of wireless cellular capacity, and it was slowing down the pipes for everyone. Caps are necessary, they can argue, or else the whole network will grind to a halt.
But that’s not the worst mega-trend. The worst is caps on home data plans. That’s right: Time Warner, Comcast and other broadband providers are putting limits on how much data you get every month, even at home.
And that, my friends, is one crazy scary development. How are we supposed to enjoy our cloud if we’re allowed only selective access to it? How is the bold new world of online computing going to take off if the meter is racking up punishing overage charges every time we look at our photos?
For some reason, the rationale behind wired-line caps (cable modems, DSL) is harder to fathom than cellular ones. It just doesn’t seem like a few more megabytes should cost Comcast anything; it’s just bits flowing.
I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t know if anyone’s thinking about this. But there are big changes coming. There are big forces about to shape our lives online. And at the moment, they’re on a direct collision course.