The latest great announcement by Steve Jobs, eagerly awaited by the Apple faithful, was not a shiny new product like the next iPhone or iPad – it was something much more profound. As part of a keynote speech delivered this week at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference in downtown San Francisco, Jobs promised nothing less than to kill the Web. Not the Internet, mind you, but the PC-centric Web. To replace it, Jobs proposed a new, device-centric Cloud.
The basic idea behind the Cloud is that, instead of information stored as files and folders on your personal computer, this information will be stored in a virtual “cloud” that is connected to each and every one of your devices. This information will be fully synced across all devices and will be instantaneously available, no matter where you are. (As long as you’re using Apple devices, that is. Polite cough.) As Jobs pointed out, “We’re going to demote the PC and Mac to just be a device. We’re going to move the hub, the center of your digital life, to the cloud.”
What’s so groundbreaking about the Cloud? After all, as some astute observers have pointed out, isn’t the Cloud just a fancy term for the Internet?
Well, not exactly. At its most basic conceptualization, the Cloud gives people and organizations a new framework for thinking about the Internet, and for the way that information and data is available. The Cloud has already made the front cover of a number of high-end business magazines, but it has always been something terribly wonky and techie. Now Apple is fully propelling the idea of cloud computing into the mainstream.
This inevitably sets up a battle royale with Google, which has been the dominant player on the Internet for nearly a decade. What Google did was brilliant: it got us – everyone of us – to think of the Internet as a nearly infinite set of “web pages” that could crawled by virtual spiders to find the information that we needed. In doing so, Google basically turned the Internet into a giant popularity contest, fueled and supported by a whole cottage industry of search engine optimization experts. The most “popular” sites became the “best” sites, and those were the ones that showed up highest in the search results.
A lot has changed since Google launched more than a decade ago. For one, there’s an increasing realization that the Internet is much more “social” and “real-time” than it ever was before. There’s also a realization that the Internet is less about searching, and more about getting. When you use apps on your mobile smart phone, you’re implicitly buying into the idea that you only want a very small sliver of the Internet delivered to you a la carte, not the whole shebang delivered buffet-style on your tiny mobile screen.
The Internet is growing at truly stupendous rates right now – if anything, the rate of growth of the Internet has been accelerating. By some estimates, nearly 800 million people will be accessing the Internet solely via their mobile devices by the year 2015. They will have no conception of what it means to have folders and files on a PC. They will only know that they want content and information, available instantaneously at their fingertips, on a very tiny screen. For them, the Internet is not the same thing as the Web.
When it comes to science and technology, the key is having the right framework for understanding what is happening at a very granular level in our physical world. Whether it is physics with the Big Bang or biology with the DNA double helix, we all have a deep-seated need to understand our physical world as simply as possible. (If you’ve ever tried explaining “the Internet” to someone like your grandmother, you’ll immediately grasp how difficult it is to describe anything virtual.)
The major tech companies – Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon – all have a vested stake in convincing us that their model for understanding the Internet is correct. Is the Internet all about Pages and Folders and Files and Websites and Personal Computers? Or is the Internet all about Apps and Clouds and Mobile Devices? Both of them describe the Internet, but they both don’t describe the Web. The future may be Cloudy, but it might just be a whole lot easier to find where we need to go that way.