Wednesday, April 23, 2008
The perils of Web-based computing
This isn't going to be a technical discussion, don't worry.
Microsoft has just announced its Live Mesh initiative. This will seamlessly integrate data and applications on your computer and the Web, and you'll be able to store your data in a central location where you can retrieve it from any computer. It's Microsoft's answer to Adobe's AIR and Google Gears, both of which address the same issue. The field is often called "cloud computing", which isn't a bad description - everything's up in a cloud of computers. Somewhere.
These sound fine and dandy, but there are three issues that the developers and boosters of these and similar products haven't addressed to my satisfaction.
The first is security. We read almost daily of data being lost by Government departments, banks and commercial firms. It's endemic. How can any user be sure that his or her data will be secure when it's all on a server somewhere on the Web? The server might not even be in his own country - it could be in China, Russia or Nigeria, where computer hackers run rampant. For all the assurances that one's data is 'safe', I guarantee right now that such data will be accessed by unauthorized persons at some stage. Probably sooner rather than later.
The second is reliability. I rely on the Web very heavily for research and other activities, but at least when there's a slowdown due to heavy traffic, or a lightning strike takes out my neighborhood cable for a few hours, I can work on my computer using my data and applications. If all those are stored on a server somewhere in the never-never-land of the Web, and I can't access them - then what? If terrorists take out key cables or nodes - as appears to have happened recently in the Middle East, taking down Internet services to several countries for days and weeks - what happens to little old me?
The third is privacy. Google already retains copies of every single e-mail sent and received by Google Mail clients. Even if you delete them from Google's mail service, their servers still retain backup copies. Google mines those e-mails for personal information to tailor advertisements delivered to you. What are you betting that Google won't do precisely and exactly the same to your personal information, files, data, pictures and everything else you store on their servers? And if you think that Microsoft, Adobe or any other company won't do precisely the same thing, there's a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you. Cash only, please, and in small bills.
No, you can count me out of the integrated online environment, thank you very much. I'll continue to keep my own applications and my own data on my own hard drive, and back them up onto my own devices.