NYT Kicks Off Cloud Paranoia Series


This just in—cloud computing, the technology founded on the principle of speeding developers from concept to creation to IP will stifle creativity—thus spake a Harvard Lawyer in the New York Times. After listing the usual security and privacy concerns he leapt into this flourish:

But the most difficult challenge — both to grasp and to solve — of the cloud is its effect on our freedom to innovate. The crucial legacy of the personal computer is that anyone can write code for it and give or sell that code to you — and the vendors of the PC and its operating system have no more to say about it than your phone company does about which answering machine you decide to buy.

Really? Google’s app engine is stifling developer creativity? Really? As he continued I realized the problem, he’d thrown the cloud computing frog in the blender. What he really meant was Facebook.

Freedom is at risk in the cloud, where the vendor of a platform has much more control over whether and how to let others write new software. Facebook allows outsiders to add functionality to the site but reserves the right to change that policy at any time, to charge a fee for applications, or to de-emphasize or eliminate apps that court controversy or that they simply don’t like.

imageYes, Jonathan Zittrain, I absolutely agree. If we turn to Facebook for all of our computing needs, we will indeed have made a huge mistake. But by no possible stretch of the imagination is the Chrome netbook OS designed like say, AOL 1997,where you are taken to a walled-garden internet. Nor, could a device of such limitation ever hope to compete in today’s market.

I don’t mean to be dismissive; there are security and privacy concerns as a more network centric view of personal computing emerges. Objects on public networks can be intercepted, spoofed, etc, and everyone should be aware of the threats. But to suggest innovation is at risk from the trend abstracting more and more of the plumbing it takes to create novel applications? That’s a technology argument and I’m not a big fan of New York telling Silicon Valley about technology risks, esp after the WSJ’s botched Iran networking coverage.

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The technology crowd is well aware of the extra control Apple and Facebook have over their development environments. Twitter was alive today with responses to @timoreilly’s call for opinions:

@timoreilly Wow. So much good debate on the iphone app store approval process that I ought to be using FriendFeed :-) Can’t respond to all. Thanks, tho.

image But just like the choice to use AOL or raw ISPs of over a decade ago, this discussion is a healthy market force, not wrought by any limitation in the core technologies of cloud computing. Netbooks aren’t even real thin clients. ChromeOS, based on the Linux Kernel, is based on an Open Source technology famous for its ability to offer up both local and network resources. If anything I’d say the Linux kernel rose to prominence precisely because its kernel was efficient at offering up x86 processing on the cheap. If you think Intel isn’t going to try to seed the market with a  local computing applications in the Netbook ecosystem (local lite action games anyone?).

Innovation will be alive and well because the fundamental technologies at the core of cloud computing are designed for massive, vibrant, explosive, awesome, and amazing application innovation. There will always be a big place in the market for companies who achieve design simplicity by limiting what can be done on their platforms—Apple and Facebook may march to massive market share by this principle—but as long as the technologies underpinning the network are open, programmable, extensible, modular, and dynamic as they are and will be, innovation is in good hands.

Ask any new cloud platform what they really want in abundance—it’s developers.  As always, as in the desktop era, you win them by giving them the best place to innovate and create. Please, NYT, don’t blend our frog.


James Watters

James Watters is currently the Sr. Manager of Cloud Solutions Development at VMware where he is responsible for developing partner run public cloud computing solutions. He is active in the SF Bay Area cloud computing community and organizes the SF Cloud Club while blogging for Silicon Angle. Prior to VMware James held positions in sales, corporate strategy, product management and engineering at Sun Microsystems and Level 3 Communications. Over his career James has focused on strategic issues around scaled data-center infrastructure and open source and virtualization software.


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  1. See, my killer instincts must be dulling – when I sense that an editorialist has made such an obvious error in conflating cloud computing with w2.0 apps, I used to salivate at the chance to eviscerate.

    Good catch. :-)

  2. Jonathan Zittrain is all wet on this one. Great discussion here James. His entire argument is like saying that in 1984 the PC and MAC would pose innovation problems in that storing stuff on your PC would be problematic towards personal security. Well we know how that movie played out – one of the most explosive growth times in both applications, productivity, and social advancement.

  3. What's interesting to me is that his News week piece on Chrome earlier in the month before twittergate/Amazon 1984 was much less paranoid:


    If you look at the rhetorical change of tone between the two I think you can see the NYT editorial team trying to play into the current paranoia–and this time I think they stepped in it by going all the way towards innovation paranoia.

  4. Amen. (and what Furrier said) ;)

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