Readers may already be familiar with my feelings about the importance of individualism and rationality as the genesis of an authority built on individualistic, rather than centralized tenants. Today, reading The Economist, I came across a quote in an article on Google (subscription required) that gives me pause and makes me think that we are faced with a kind of Baroque period in technology. This is not a technology or venture capital blog, but, as a keen consumer of outsourcing services, the article exhibits a trend, today described by such phrases as "Software as a Service," and perhaps in days of yore as "The Network is the Computer," that makes me nervous. Very nervous. To understand why you have to go all the way back to the foundation of Apple.
First, the quote about Google:
Among Google fans, the company has come to epitomise the more mature (ie, post-bust) internet generation, which goes by the marketing cliché “Web 2.0” (see article). In this context, it is assumed to be working on absolutely everything simultaneously, and every new product announcement, no matter how trivial, is greeted as a tiny step toward an eventual world-changing transformation.
At a minimum, this hypothetical transformation would consist of moving computation and data off people's personal computers and on to the network—ie, Google's servers. Other names for this scenario are the “GDrive” or the “Google grid” that the company is allegedly working on, meaning free (but ultimately advertising-supported) copious online storage and possibly free internet access.
I'm not a rabid Apple fan, nor do I have the qualifications to be much of a nerd, but I do share the afterglow associated with the introduction of the "personal computer." Apparently, I say this because I was far too young to know, long ago there were these things called mainframes. Mainframes were massive pieces of iron that provided a central source for computing power. Since they were centralized, and sufficiently complex to defy individual intrepretation, little empires developed centered around the computing resources in large corporates. They controlled access to computing. They had power. That this empire would ever be challenged by smaller, autonomous computing was unthinkable. So interwoven was this belief that Ken Olsen, founder and CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation famously told the World Future Society "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home," in 1977.
It seems obvious now that the personal computer was destined for ubiquity and centralized resources for obsolescence. Haven't we had this argument a few times already? Isn't this the point of capitalism, individuality and free markets that individual market actors have importance? What better example than the personal computer? It deconstructed centralized control over computing resources. (There's nothing more annoying than IT people with the power to nix a merger). In short, it introduced individualism into the computing world. So why is Google, along with Microsoft and others, working hard to reverse this trend? This question is even more puzzling when you look at the many failed attempts to go back to a mainframe model over the last 20 years.
With my data on my hard drive in my computer running on my software, I don't really have to worry about their data backups, their storage provisions, their network connection or their disgruntled employees. Why would I want to give up my data and my processing to a third party, ever, unless I couldn't get done what I wanted to do on my own, increasingly cheap hardware? Why introduce dozens of people into the potential failure chain?
I think the answer lies not in what consumers want, for anyone who has lost a long blog entry or a seven page email due to a web-based front end crashing, the wireless network at the airport dying for 30 seconds, some piece of heavy equipment digging up a fiber cable, or a session timing out, has exactly zero interest in using those applications via the network unless it is mandatory, but in what software companies want. They want to control how data, content effectively, gets processed.
If you follow digital rights management (DRM) at all (I do because of one of our portfolio firms) you know that software makers and content providers have long been trying to control what you process and how you process it on hardware that you already own. "Piracy" is the usual boogieman used to justify these restrictions. They started with selling you a "license to use" software rather than actual title to the software itself. Certain uses could be restricted this way. That didn't really give them active control so they moved to technological restrictions on use, DRM and burdensome and capricious legal structures (like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) to protect their poorly designed DRM.
Contrast this against the stated benefits of "software as a service," all of which strike me as as much steaming dung. And what happens when Microsoft.net Word 2.0 eats my offering memorandum? Well, I'll call the help line and utilize the "customer service as a service" India outsourced support rep, of course.
Time for the Second Enlightenment. With any luck there will be some bloodshed.