Clouding the information highway

A look at the pros and cons of Microsoft's long-rumoured cloud operating system
Techno Page By Harendra Alwis

Just ten years ago, most people did not have mobile phones or computers and broadband Internet was almost unheard of. Yet today we take it for granted that we can record live video on our mobile phones and share it instantly via high-speed data connections without even a computer.

Technology has progressed so fast during that time that a vast number of Sri Lankans bought their first mobile phone without ever owning a fixed line phone or a computer. Mobile operators in the country are trying to tap into the emerging market when they adopt wireless broadband services without ever owning any form of fixed line communication tools. It seems that technology is enabling civilization to leapfrog its own slow progressions into a smaller, more connected world. So now we have iPhones and broadband Internet at our fingertips. What's next?

A few clues about what's next were hinted earlier this month, when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer talked about "Windows Cloud" – the company's long-rumoured cloud operating system. At the time, though, he noted that the Windows Cloud name was not necessarily the final name. On Wednesday, an eagle-eyed blogger noticed that the Web site for Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference was listing several cloud computing sessions under the subject heading "Windows Strata." Microsoft has since taken down the Windows Strata references, but not before a number of blogs noted the listing. "We'll need a new operating system," Ballmer said. "Just as we have an operating system for the PC, for the phone, and for the server, we need a new operating system that runs in the Internet."

A cloud OS? An operating system that runs in the Internet? What does that mean? To get an idea about what that means, we have to trace our way back through the fossil record of the first Operating Systems and track its evolutionary footsteps. The first Operating Systems were built exclusively to bind the different components of the PC together. As Microsoft – the market leader in OS sales stubbornly held on to Windows 95, 98 and ME even into the new millennium despite the rapid commercialisation and expansion of the Internet, it was clear that even visionaries of the PC age such as Bill Gates took way too long to realise the important role that 'networks' were going to play. Today, the term "Personal Computer" is outdated and irrelevant to most users. Operating systems are built not merely to combine the components within the computer, but also the multitude of components stretching to the far reaches of the globe. The web browser with its many 'plug-ins', such as the flash player that renders multimedia elements from various websites, is perhaps the best example.

The future lies beyond. As Sun Microsystems prophetically said many years ago, perhaps even before its meaning had condensed in the minds of those who uttered the words – "the network [is] will be the computer." Ultra broadband networks will deliver computing power via the network in such a way that people will switch on their computers inside the network. Far superior "Web services" that are (painstakingly) delivered through the web browser will instead be delivered directly and seamlessly to the terminal. The connection to the network itself will be the computer.

But why? Well, to start with, computing and information will be accessible to anybody for a minimum capital expenditure. Computing will be ubiquitous and delivered mostly via mobile platforms. As computing power is shared, utilisation levels will be high and therefore costs will be minimised. Access terminals or the current equivalent of PCs or mobile devices will not go out of date with the release of a faster processor or sleeker operating system.

There are however many dangers that are inherent to the cloud architecture. One of the strengths of the global communications networks today stem directly from the fact that anyone with a 'personal' computer can independently and in complete privacy create and distribute information via the Internet with little or no restrictions from Internet Service Providers or governments.

What sort of future will the advent of the cloud bring about? Write in with your thoughts to technnopage@gmail.com

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