Full Circle: The Return of the Mainframe?

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.