We are at the start of a significant revolution in how we access and process “our” data with a computer. This revolution is enabled by an interesting convergence of technology, fueled by a plethora of not really compatible portable devices generating confusion over functionality boundaries, and driven by paranoia.
We see the beginnings of this revolution in both business and our homes. Different aspects are being driven from different places at different speeds. Social media has thrown a huge monkey wrench in the traditional IT-controlled data processing environment. In case you haven’t noticed, corporate IT is losing this control battle.
When was the last time your company computer could do more than your home computer?
Are you old enough to remember when a phone was physically connected to a building and could only initiate and receive phone calls? When you called a place, not a person? The first words of a call were, “Is John available?” Now the first words are, “Where are you?”
Your “phone” can probably do email, play games, watch movies, sing a few thousand songs, text, tweet, and read books. We are seeing a real blurring of the lines between a phone and a laptop, with this strange anomaly called a tablet somewhere in the vanishing space between them.
This is not lost on the Big Boys. Apple and Microsoft are both working very hard to blur the lines even more. Internet Explorer 9 runs exactly the same way on all flavors of Windows, from the Windows Phone to the largest Windows workstation. Both companies are working to make software installation and management on their desktop and laptop workstations as easy and painless as on your phone. Both companies are bringing the multiple touch look and feel of a smart phone to the laptop and desktop. Apple has a mouse with no buttons – the entire top of the mouse is a touch pad. Use one or two fingers to do a whole lot more than just “click.” Some people have figured out how to take the Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect technology to drive legacy applications like Word by speaking and waving their hands and moving about.
Keyboards: hate them. They really need to be big to be used efficiently, which makes them awkward on small devices. The rollout keyboards (thin plastic sheet that rolls out to be a full-size keyboard) or laser keyboards (small device that displays a keyboard on a flat surface and watches where your fingers move) are cute but just don’t feel right. And they need the same physical space as a “real” keyboard when in use. Soft keyboards (keyboards displayed on the device’s screen that you poke with a finger) take a lot of real estate on the screen, are often really small, are a lot slower than a “real” keyboard, and prone to delivering frustration.
Enter speech-to-text or voice recognition – the ability for the computer to listen to you and know exactly what you said, and even throw it into a text file. It has been around since the early 1950s, although back then it could only recognize single spoken digits (“one”, “two”, …) after twenty minutes of training. Now they have dictionaries of millions of words. Error rates vary a lot, but can approach 1% (it gets 99% of the words right). For example, you have read a little over 500 words so far in this blog. If I had spoken it to my Mac instead of typing it, there might only be five or six “dictation” errors – pretty easy to find and fix. Trust me, while I’m a fairly decent typist, there were more than six typos getting this far.
But the real driver to the revolution will be paranoia. This paranoia comes in two flavors: protecting data, and controlling the IT infrastructure.
In our home we have a lot of digital data, more than 5 terabytes of data. Back in the early 1970s I wrote a letter (fortunately lost) that claimed that a major government customer would never need more than one or two gigabytes of data storage for a major logistics project I was working on. One terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes. This should also establish the reliability of my predictions. Most of our data is music and pictures. The music I could largely replace for a price. The pictures are irreplaceable.
In your business there is also a lot of data. Back in the last millennium, that data was all under the control of corporate IT. They had processes and procedures to do backups and audits and make sure the software was at the correct release level. It worked really well, primarily because they could see all of the data and all of the processing elements: they were all in computer rooms in an easily countable number of known locations. IT had complete control.
In the 1980s, that started to change. Departments realized they could bypass “the gridlock” of Corporate IT by buying their own $5,000 server and putting whatever software they wanted on it. Often this was done with the full knowledge of Corporate IT who was furiously publishing standards on equipment, software and processes. However, in most large organizations, Corporate IT quickly lost control. I once needed to certify the number of servers that were actually in an enterprise-class company and running a specific piece of software. In order to do that, I actually had to know how many servers there were and where they were. It took about 50 people three months to get the answer (about 5,500 servers in over 40 countries). The answer was right for about one week; then a dozen servers were moved from London to Amsterdam.
Many of these departmental servers had no operations staff and little or no effort was made to actually manage them. The lack of operational support was due to two things: the sales person’s “Oh, it just runs itself!” claims, and general ignorance on the part of these department managers of IT principles. The result was that software was never updated, and backups were never taken. The horror stories abound. IT had lost control.
From the business side, all of these new devices and interconnectivity pose a lot of risk. IT doesn’t know what data is on what smart phones, laptops, or tablets. They don’t know if the latest malware detectors and security patches have been applied. They don’t know what independent backup processes you may be doing, using products like Carbonite to backup your data, and maybe some of your company’s data, invisibly to the Cloud. There is no way your company can insure that its Data Life Cycle Management or Security policies are being followed, nor can it efficiently and completely comply with court ordered discoveries.
The solution: eliminate the problem. Keep the data and the applications back in the computer room under IT control. There are two main ways of doing this.
- Virtual Desktop. In this case, your laptop is nothing more than the user interface: keyboard, video, mouse. Everything you do is actually being done back in the data center on virtual servers, each running dozens to hundreds of virtual desktops. All of the programs (e.g., Microsoft Word, your company’s special planning application) are actually running in the data center, and the data is all in the data center. You can’t really tell. You have the exact same look and feel that you had before. More importantly, the programs can’t tell either. It is exactly the same version of Word and your planning application. If IT needs to make an update, they do it once in one place and everyone has the benefit of the update the next time they start the program. It may not be your own data center; this can all be in the Cloud,managed by an organization who has IT as their core business.
- Cloud Applications. If you have played with Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365 you know what this is: versions of Microsoft Office products or very similar programs that run in the Cloud. They are functionally very similar to the “real” thing, but they again are running on big servers in a Microsoft or Google installation. Again, updates are made once and apply to all users. In both cases, your data is stored in the Cloud, with sufficient security capabilities for many cases.
In either case you have gained some amazing capabilities.
- Complete location independence. It doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you can get to the Internet.
- Device independence. Staying with a friend who has a Mac laptop? You can still run your Windows-based programs, or your Linux-based programs. We are not very far from the ability to do the same thing from your smart phone.
- Software independence. Don’t have the right version of Word on your laptop? Doesn’t matter, you are running Word on software in the Cloud.
In other words, you have moved to the Cloud.
Even in your personal life, you can fairly inexpensively accomplish the same thing. When I travel, I use GoToMyPC to access my main desktop (a Mac) from whatever wherever. When we go on cruises, I use the shipboard Internet Café to securely access my home desktop. It also lets me access my work Windows PC (if I can do it without my wife noticing) from my Mac laptop or someone else’s PC. It is harder to lose my laptop if I don’t take it, and even when I do take my laptop I don’t have to worry about data leakage since the data never leaves home.
The last word:
Do you travel with your laptop? According to the Ponemon Institute, each week over 10,000 laptops are reported lost at 36 of the largest U.S. airports, and 65% are not recovered. In addition to the obvious inconvenience of not having your laptop, you also have lost whatever data was on it. This could potentially financially and legally impact your company, or you. Fairly soon, if you live in the Cloud, you won’t need to take your laptop. Just pick up a tablet with your rental car or at the hotel, or use the hotel’s business office or the cruise ship’s Internet Café. Use your phone to entertain and keep you busy on the flight, while waiting in the airport, and while being abused by the badly named Transportation Security Administration (where most of these laptops are “lost”). All of your applications and data are waiting for you – in the Cloud.
Keep your sense of humor.