Full Circle: The Return of the Mainframe?

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

It’s déjà vu all over again — with a twist. Been there; done that; sort of. I’m talking about my mixed reaction to cloud computing. To understand exactly what I’m talking about, you’ll need to join me for a brief trip in my personal Wayback Machine.

The Past

I recall the day our university finally upgraded their creaky old keypunch-card-dependent mainframe to a Honeywell Multics system. Although Multics commands (similar to Unix) were arcane and the system offered no graphics, it was none-the-less a thrilling moment. With the new terminals, I could type on a keyboard and receive instant feedback to a display in front of me. It felt as if I had been catapulted into the future.

Despite this advance, one thing stayed the same: all of my work remained stored on a server. My only access to it was via the terminals — which were in turn hardwired to the mainframe. That all changed when I began using an Apple II (soon to be followed by my purchase of a Macintosh). At last, I had a “personal” computer, untethered to any mainframe system. I could work at home…or anywhere else I could plug in my Mac. From spreadsheets to text documents, my work was saved to floppy disks that were in my possession.

At first, much of my work still required mainframe access. My Mac truly was more for “personal” — as opposed to “business” — use. Over the next few years, however, the Mac’s software matured to the point that my need for the hulking mainframe dropped to near zero. With a wave of my hand and a “Good riddance,” I snipped the virtual cord binding me to the university’s computer.

My self-contained world did not last very long. A modem soon found its way into my home. The first modems were slow and the connections were not very reliable. But I was online — at least occasionally. I discovered CompuServe and America Online and GEnie and Apple’s eWorld. I found uses for all of them, especially for email and downloading software. Still, most of my day remained offline. And that was the way I liked it. There was a sense of satisfaction that came from knowing that everything I really needed (computerwise) resided on the hard drive I now had connected to my Mac.

A few years later, the tectonic plates of my computer world underwent another major shift. Graphical browsers to the World Wide Web arrived. Around the same time, the Internet, as opposed to proprietary services such as America Online, became the default means of getting online. The final piece in the puzzle was locked in with the shift from dial-up modems to high-speed cable modems. Suddenly, I was connected to the Internet all the time. For better or worse, browsing the Web and checking email became almost continuous activities. I even started my own website (MacFixIt).

The Present

Over the ensuing years, the percentage of my day spent online continued to creep upwards. Today, I could be the target of a Saturday Night Live satire. I am actively online every minute I am at my desk. My connection to the Internet, however, doesn’t end when I leave my chair. Via my iPhone, I check my email and Twitter feed wherever I go. For extended trips, I take my iPad (and/or MacBook Pro) and just about refuse to stay anywhere where there isn’t some form of Wi-Fi connection.

And yet…almost paradoxically…I retain my desire to be free of the shackles of a remote mainframe. This desire significantly affects how I interact with the Internet. In this regard, my son pokes fun at what he views as my “behind-the-times” mentality. But I’m hanging on:

POP email. I prefer POP email accounts to IMAP. Although I concede the IMAP advantages of having access to my entire email archive wherever I am — and not worrying about how to get a message I send on my iPhone to show up on my Mac — I still prefer having all of my messages automatically downloaded to my Mac. I similarly prefer knowing that I can access and manage all of my email, even if my Internet connection is temporarily down.

Calendars. For similar reasons, I use BusyCal as the basis for maintaining my calendar appointments, rather than some Web-based service such as Google Calendar. I sync my calendars to MobileMe, but my Mac remains the core location of my data.

Dropbox. While I find Dropbox to be a great tool for sharing documents among my devices and colleagues, I resist editing documents directly on the Dropbox server. Rather, I work with documents offline and drag a copy to my Dropbox folder when done.

• Music. I prefer having my music downloaded from the iTunes Store or imported from CDs — rather than using a streaming service such as Pandora.

Despite Google’s push to move virtually all of my computing tasks to their online alternatives, I continue to decline their invitations. I don’t use Google Docs or Google Wave or just about Google anything (beyond Mail and Maps). Despite my heavy use of the Internet, I still prefer my computer to be as untethered, independent and self-sustaining as possible. But the winds of change are once again blowing a storm in my direction.

The Future

In the last week or so, Apple released two new updates of note.

The first is a new version of the iDisk app. What makes this update significant is that it permits streaming music from files stored on your MobileMe iDisk to your iOS device — including support for iOS 4 multitasking.

Second is the beta of MobileMe Calendar. A hallmark of the new version is its use of the CalDAV standard. As a result, the primary location for storing calendar data will be in the MobileMe cloud. Your other calendar-supporting devices (iPhones, Macs) will sync to it. Any editing of a calendar that you do from any of these other devices will be done to the master version in the cloud. As I understand it, editing a MobileMe calendar will thus require that you be online and have access to your MobileMe account; there will be no offline editing (as you can do now).

These are almost certainly just the opening salvos of what Apple has in mind. Taken together, these two updates point to a major overhaul of MobileMe and iTunes in the not-too-distant future. Predictions are that Apple plans to use its purchase of LaLa to convert iTunes into an entirely Web-based service. I certainly agree that the time is not far off when you will be able to move your iTunes Library to a MobileMe cloud. All syncing between iTunes and iOS devices will then be manageable through this cloud.

Overall, I look forward to this transition. It offers numerous advantages. First up, it would free iOS devices from ever having to tether to a Mac for syncing. This would mean that you could setup a new iPad out of the box without requiring any connection to a Mac. Even the backup of an iPad would be maintained through the MobileMe cloud. This, in turn, would be a giant step toward a future version of the iPad that could function as a complete independent alternative to a Mac, rather than as an accessory to a Mac. This transition would also mean that you could access your iTunes music and video from all of your Macs and iOS devices without requiring any intermediary feature — such as the often clunky Home Sharing. It could even permit automatic sharing of apps among family members of the same MobileMe account. At a minimum, it would simplify the syncing of calendars, contacts, email and documents shared across multiple devices.

As I said, overall I see this as a good thing. Yet…a voice in the back of my head keeps muttering: “Ted, don’t be fooled. This transition is a risky return to the old days of the mainframe. For every activity that moves over to the cloud, it means that you can no longer perform that activity without an Internet connection. It means that the data are stored on a server someplace else — someplace that you do not directly control. In some cases, without an Internet connection, you may entirely lose access to your data.”

True enough. Of course, it’s also different now than back in the old days. We are now talking about wireless anywhere access to the cloud — as opposed to working from a wired terminal available only in some room in a limited-access building. Still, the coming transition is another step away from that all-too-brief period of time when your computer could truly be a self-contained fully-independent machine. Now, rather than having to depend on a mainframe where you work, you’ll have to depend on some invisible server maintained by Apple (or Google or whomever) in some distant who-knows-where location. Part of me laments this “progress.” Part of me welcomes it. Regardless, it’s coming.

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22 Comments Leave Your Own

daemon

Ted,

If all you want is a “self-contained fully-independent machine” why did you ever get e-mail?

Ted Landau

If all you want is a ?self-contained fully-independent machine? why did you ever get e-mail?

I thought you knew. Because life is messy and full of contradictions.

More seriously, I thought the article made clear my internal conflicts and compromises involved in such matters.

geoduck

Pretty much I agree with you. The cloud is fine for some limited services, e-mail for example and backups but I do not want everything to be cloud based IT’s just too risky.

iTunes as a cloud service is a nonstarter for me. I just won’t. Cloud apps like GoogleDocs, I just don’t use ‘em. I want my stuff with me. This is not being a Ludditie either. I work with fairly large networked systems and I spend much of my day chasing issues related to the network not being up, or being slow, or not connecting, or whatever. I also deal with the security issues related to the network exposing critical data. There is a place for the network and even the cloud, but I don’t want to go back to the days of the dumb terminal.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

The trade-off to support multiple devices is syncing vs. central cloud storage. Syncing will always be inherently less risky, but less convenient and perpetually a couple steps behind the curve. On that comparative axis, syncing is probably best for and will beat the cloud for 80% of people. You’ve either got to be a real tech die-hard (and very committed) to commit to the cloud, or you’re a newbie who doesn’t know the difference. Even free in the cloud versus paid on the desktop is but a marginal incentive (e.g. Office v. Google Docs).

But where the cloud can play well or everyone is when it goes social. When storing your data in the cloud makes it more valuable because of the connections it makes with other people’s data, that’s where the cloud wins. Google Voice for example… Transcribed voicemail on Google’s servers, leveraging all the training those servers get from everyone else’s voicemail actually makes voicemail useable again. Visual voicemail on iPhone is a toy (and a mostly unusable one if you get several VMs per day) comparatively.

Social is in Google’s DNA, but not in Apple’s. In fact, it’s so in Google’s DNA that they often play too close to the privacy line for many people. Google is more likely to find those cloud apps where social value can be added. Apple, not so likely. As such, Apple shouldn’t feel like it has to play there, and Apple customers shouldn’t feel like they are obliged to use Apple’s cloud offerings, which have mostly sucked and been too expensive since the beginning anyway. I’m thinking clear back to AppleLink.

vpndev

We need the network for moving things about but that’s not the same as storing it all there.

One significant item to remember is that data in the cloud belongs to the cloud owner and not to you. The owner can make whatever use of it that it wants to, subject to the privacy policy etc. And the legal threshold for other parties to get access to it is quite low - much lower than to data stored at home. “Probable cause” does not apply here.

I hope that there will be changes in the law to address this but there’s nothing on the horizon.

mchampag

Historical clarification: Multics preceded Unix. In fact, Unix (originally spelled Unics) was a pun on Multics.

Ted Landau

Historical clarification: Multics preceded Unix.

You are correct! I’ve made a slight modification to the text in this regard. Thanks.

daemon

More seriously, I thought the article made clear my internal conflicts and compromises involved in such matters.

No, it didn’t Ted.

Your article was a time line of your computer experiences, no explaination of why you found email to be useful, just that you did. Also no explaination of why you felt you wanted a “self-contained fully-independent machine,” just that you did.

Ted, I’d like to know what drove you to use these things.

Josh

As I understand it, editing a MobileMe calendar will thus require that you be online and have access to your MobileMe account; there will be no offline editing (as you can do now).

I hope that you are wrong.  I live and work in an area with poor AT&T reception, and until about 2 weeks ago my landline connection was too slow for mobileme syncing to work correctly.  If I end up having to have a reliably fast connection in order to add any events to my calendar, then I won’t be able to use my iPhone most places, and even my desktop machine will be useless in this regard when the network goes down (an all too frequent occurence here). 

This strikes me as being too prone to failure of the sort that distroys the “It Just Works” mythos of Apple’s products and services.  If your understanding of how this will work in the future is correct, then I see much pain and suffering in my future.

Ted Landau

No, it didn?t Ted.

My desire for an “independent” machine comes from the same place that I believe led to the creation of the personal computer in the first place: A desire to be in control of your computer experience. With Mac (unlike a mainframe), I could determine when I used the computer, how often I used the computer, where I used the computer, what I chose to install on the computer and what activities I chose to do on the computer. With a mainframe, all of these was restricted in one form or another. Plus, with a personal computer, I was in control of my data storage ? rather than having access left to the mercy of the mainframe.

All of that said, situations arose where the advantages of being connected were greater than the desirability of being an “island.” In such cases, I went along as the pendulum swung in the other direction. Email is certainly one example. Even here, as I explained in the article, I attempted to keep my email as localized as possible.

vpndev

@josh: I think Ted’s mistaken, and that you’ll be OK.

The Apple description says ...“The MobileMe Calendar beta uses the CalDAV standard so you can view and edit your calendars using the built-in calendar applications on your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac”

The way I read it, the master calendar is on MobileMe and your device (phone, Mac etc) syncs with it. I’ll admit, though, that I’m not in the beta and haven’t tried this. I’m just interpreting the description.

Thinking about it - that would mean that you couldn’t do calendar stuff in airplane-mode. That would not go over well at all.

Ted Landau

Thinking about it - that would mean that you couldn?t do calendar stuff in airplane-mode. That would not go over well at all.

I remain less than 100% certain about this…which is why I worded it the way I did. We’ll have to wait and see I guess. I agree it may turn out that you can at least view your calendar when “offline.”

However, the limitation with airplane-mode doesn’t by itself mean much. Most of Google’s apps won’t work in AirPlane mode either. Actually, any app that depends on an Internet connection (such as a Weather app) won’t function in Airplane mode. Apple could be moving the calendar in this direction.

jennielf

Amazingly, I agree with most of the general sentiments here. Cloud-based services while a nice idea are amazingly impractical for all but a handful of users in a small subset of geographic locations (as much as Google, et al would like us to think otherwise.)

“The cloud” as a computing/application platform will not get the penetration it needs until DOCSIS 2.0 speeds or better are mandatory and internet access is considered a basic utility that everyone is required to have (like power, water, phone, etc). The current network neutrality and FCC fights going on in DC right now, keep skirting that issue…sad that the big telcos have enough pull to make it not happen.

I would like to see this happen if for no other reason it will mean a TRUE level playing field for everyone (who has a computer). At that point, yes, cloud computing may be feasible. However, by that point, there will probably be some new “thing” we all need/want and cloud computing will be a thing of the past.

xmattingly

Very interesting article, Ted. Just goes to show you that life does come full circle in many respects.

I tend to be in favor of the “personal” side of computers as well… after all, when the power goes out, who gets to watch their movies - The guy who pays for streaming content or the guy who buys digital copies and dumps them on a laptop or iPad?

computerbandgeek

Every IMAP client that I have used in at least the past 6 or 7 years has had the exact same local storage behavior as POP clients. The only (yes ONLY) reason to use POP is if your email provider does not provide IMAP. I do most of my email reading and composing offline and keep a local copy of everything both with Apple Mail and on my iPhone, even though every email account that I use is IMAP.

jbruni

Anyone remember the data loss on the Microsoft hosted cloud? Was it Danger?

I enjoy using the iDisk, but to me the cloud is a convenience, not a necessity.

For the same reason I will not use Quicken Essentials. I just don’t think the reliability and privacy protection are there yet. Someday it will be.

Lancashire-Witch

Well Ted, if “the Cloud” is the future then Apple should make sure it works.  For over 12 months - and still today with iOS4 - syncing with MobileMe will screw up your Birthdays calendar if you are located in New Zealand. (That’s the (UTC+12) Time Zone). And you don’t have to be airborne.

It really doesn’t matter whether it’s in the cloud, on my Mac, on my phone, or in a 40 year-old mainframe.  It just has to work; continually, consistently, day-in, day-out.

But if things go wrong the problem becomes one of blame and accountability and if the solution is not in my hands all I can do is email, or chat with support (very friendly they are too), or blog it - and wait, and wait and wait…. or give up and just watch a movie like xmattingly.

djr12

Interesting column, Ted. I never really thought of the vaunted cloud as a return to the early days of computing, but I guess that makes sense. Glad to see this article and the comments as I felt like I was the only one who just didn’t “get” why I would want to migrate my music to the cloud instead of maintaining it locally. Why stream, with all its attendant limitations and issues, when I can play the music locally instead? I don’t see the advantage.

I think Dropbox has it exactly right. The cloud is useful, as a mechanism for sync/backup, but I will never feel comfortable working there unless I have a local copy as well. Dropbox to me is the best of both worlds: a local copy on every machine serves nicely as a backup and also offers even more convenience than the cloud, because not only is everything kept in sync, but there are no airplane-mode challenges, either.

Bosco, just curious: how do you feel that “social” is in Google’s DNA? Search, sure, but I can’t really think of any successes they’ve had in the social sphere, unless you count buying YouTube (I don’t). I guess Orkut is popular in Brazil or something, but Buzz was a PR/privacy disaster and I don’t think it’s really making any waves. I’ve only just dabbled in Google Voice and it seems like a pretty cool tool, but I never thought of it as social per se.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@djr12—Note my working definition of “social”. Fundamentally, it’s not meeting your friends on Facebook. Instead, it’s allowing data from people to intermingle and create new value. From that definition, you can get Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Picasa (great Google example, BTW), etc. “Social”, in the sense of intermingling people’s data, is not without its challenges. Privacy is probably the biggest one, and Google is actively figuring out where the line is and how thick it’s painted.

Picasa is a great example of Google having social in its DNA and Apple not having it. Bryan Chaffin wrote an article in March about Steve Jobs dismissing it and saying that iPhoto on Mac had a better Faces and Places feature. Of course, that totally misses the social features of Picasa and Google’s ability to leverage millions of users’ data to train their filters. Very similar to Google Voice and Apple’s Visual Voicemail, no?

djr12

Got it, Bosco. As I said, I haven’t really used Google Voice all that much yet, but I do think you’re underselling the merits of visual voicemail on the iPhone. It may not offer all the features (or even close) that Google Voice does, but it does offer something that’s in Apple’s DNA: simplicity. Being able to delete and scrub through voicemail at a glance is no small change from the cumbersome norms of most voicemail systems. Having to use my work phone’s voicemail system is torture after that. Yes, I should work G Voice in there… eventually… after watching several of the tutorials they offer on how to implement it….

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@djr12—The killer feature of Google Voice is transcribed voicemail, copied to your inbox. So far as I’m concerned, it’s the killer feature of Android. Voicemail has been unusable for me for almost a decade because people generally ramble on, don’t distinguish early on between emergencies and low priority (I think they generally just don’t know the difference), don’t distinguish just calling to say hello from needing something (or bait and switch), etc.

I used an iPhone 3GS for about 8 months. 10-15 voicemails per day. That could easily suck up 30 minutes just listening to them. I trained most people who regularly call me to not leave a voicemail and send me a text or email instead if I didn’t answer.

With transcribed voicemail through Google Voice, I’m asking people to leave a message again. The transcription butchers the words they say, but generally keeps the level of urgency and the main point of the call. Google used its free GOOG411 service to initially train its server-based voice recognition. That’s the “social” part. It continues to use the voice sources it has available to expand and refine its filters. You can’t compete with that if you don’t have massive “social” inputs to your systems.

Lancashire-Witch

it?s allowing data from people to intermingle and create new value. From that definition, you can get Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Picasa (great Google example, BTW), etc. ?Social?, in the sense of intermingling people?s data, is not without its challenges. Privacy is probably the biggest one,

I’m concerned about the challenges that confront my grandchildren as they socially intermingle their data (and photos)  to create value for identity thieves. My advice to them is - Don’t do it, but if you do, be very careful…

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