The latest Twitter controversy surrounding the blog, the hacker and the cloud vendor isn’t disturbing – just inevitable. By now anybody with an iota of interest in cloud computing will know what this story is about. Many people are probably damning Google for their ” lack of security.” But hang on here. Aren’t people being quite cavalier with their data? The other day I refused to give my own partner my PIN… but as I write, it’s happily stored somewhere as a draft on GMail. That really doesn’t make sense.

Hell, I trust the cloud more than I trust myself

Who’s really to blame? I don’t think it’s black-and-white. Frankly, as a rule I trust some company I know nothing about  a  lot more than I trust myself. I leave my passwords lying around on the desktop. I write my PIN on a scrap of paper and keep it in my wallet next to my debit card (nobody’s fooled by the fact I’ve made it look like a phone number). I’m lazy and useless – and I suspect most people out there are too. However, I think cloud vendors have a responsibility to make sure they compensate for users’ inadequacies.

Keeping sensitive data in the cloud isn’t “probably going to happen” – for consumers, it’s been happening for years – the big vendors just need to pull their finger out. At the moment, if you get stung by a lack of cloud security you’ll just be told:

“Only a dribbling buffoon leaves all their valuable data in the cloud.”

While it’s true that simple passwords were used – and in this respect Google is relatively blameless – there really ought to be more safeguards in place so people are forced to at least set more secure passwords. This is a must if the  business cloud is going to expand from web services and utilities into other areas such as secure data hosting.

Jamie Turner, UK cloud computing evangalist and IT Director of TheWebService, has this to say:

Cloud storage, just like Esperanto and the Sinclair C5, is a concept that makes sense… almost.

Having access to your data anywhere in the world from any device is an incredibly powerful thing. The scope is huge, enabling much wider usage and new possibilities, most of which haven’t even been thought of yet.

The problem is, making your calendar universally available in the cloud is a very different thing to placing business-critical company and customer information out there – especially financial information. Despite the significant business drivers that may promote this approach – scalability, agility and all the things that basically remove the inertia that blights most IT departments – security’s still the show-stopping concern.

There are too many questions, and too few answers. What control do we really have over data once it’s up there? What’s the physical security of the data centre? Where is the data centre? Are there cross-border legal issues with hosting the data overseas or in territories with ‘incompatible’ legislative environments? What if you need to destroy data – is that even possible? Then we need to consider the availability of the data: what if the cloud provider folds or they’re taken over by an overseas organisation? If there’s a catastrophic data centre failure, what’s the recovery time? Do they even back things up or just hope that a single data centre will always be safe? It’s a glib but important question – you can have as much redundancy as you like at any given site but if it disappears into the San Andreas Fault you’ll be wishing you still had that magic DAT tape. Are we blindly throwing data into the sky in the hope it will stay safe? Ultimately, this is the big problem with storing sensitive data in the cloud – at least for now: there are just no convincing answers to any of these questions.

So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – this problem just needs to be addressed, fast.

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As predicted here and here, Google has announced its new Chrome operating system project.

In a blog post that indirectly pokes fun at Microsoft OS’s perceived instability and short shelf life, Google are trying to endear themselves to the public with their embracing of the open source community and clear functional ideals (“it should just work,” they say).

With all the anti-Microsoft sentiments surrounding Vista and the anti-monopoly debacle surrounding its European launch of Windows 7, Redwood is having a tough time of late – a tough time that the modest success of Bing probably isn’t going to help all that much.

But be warned. There is a certain limit to what a desktop-bound God can do. If Google takes total monopoly of the cloud, there will be no limit to what they could do. And I for one find it a little unsettling.

G-Drive

G-Drive

G-Drive

What is this X-Box design reject that’s nudging its way onto tech pages everywhere?  Apparently it’s Google’s latest stab at the cloud.  It’s the cloud – but in a nice tangible box.  Or rather, it’s a device that lets you access Google’s mighty servers and store all your stuff on them.

Google’s still a bunch of high-school geeks coding up “cool stuff”

But does this cut to the root of the problem?

I don’t think so.  Google seems to argue that somehow this box will “amalgamate all of its services” but I think it’s a desperate attempt to think around a problem rather than dive in head-first and solve it.

So what’s the problem?  It’s this: Google’s wasting its advantage in being early to market with cloud-based could-be solutions by not providing Enterprise-class cloud services.  Google docs is great but it’s totally focussed on the consumer end of the market.  We need tools with more functionality, or at the very least we need them marketed at business.  Google doesn’t seem to have the first clue at aiming its products B2B.

Google’s still, at heart, a bunch of high-school geeks coding up “cool stuff” before moving onto the next project – or buying it out.  Time to grow up, Google.

Update:

Our senior developer Richard Geary pulled me aside yesterday to tell me that the G-Drive would not, in all probability, as the Telegraph surmised with its Photoshop-suspect-image, come via an actual box.  I was shocked.

Frankly, though, I actually wouldn’t put it past anyone to do just that.  But just to illustrate that I’m not averse to a bit of Photoshop myself:

g-drive1

Obviously some things will have changed by the time of widespread adoption in 2015.  That ridiculous new Google icon for one.  But you’ll probably still be running XP.

Gee, this looks like an interesting article.  Not only does it have an in-your-face salesy claim (something is doubled overnight) but it’s about the glamorous subject of sign-up forms.  So don’t bother reading on unless a) you have or build sites that have a sign-up page, something like this:

form

And b) don’t mind a little plug for Postcode Anywhere’s addressing web service which solves one of the major problems with these forms.

The overriding rule

The overriding rule is this: make the form friendly.  It must not be intimidating.  Leads and potential customers do not want to see this staring them in the face:

Intimidating form

Intimidating form

This can be broken down into three golden rules:

1) Trim the fat

Do you really need to know all those details?  Or is the only thing you really need the name and the email address?  If you can trim it down to these two pieces of information, you’re done.

2) Use more than one screen

If there are some details you absolutely must capture at that point in time – credit card details, for example, then it makes no sense to bunch it all up on the one screen.  The best technique I’ve seen is to ask for the name and email address in the first screen, and put a “continue” button which takes you to the next screen, and so on.  I’m not going to go into detail on all the design and coding elements of how this is done – you can figure that out for yourself.  There is more than one way to skin a cat.  But I will say this: think about the psychology of it.  If you see a very short form, you’re more likely to fill it out.  And by the time the next screen comes up, you’ve already made a commitment and invested some time into filling out the form.  Now that you’ve spent some time on it, you don’t want it to be wasted time.  So you click through and fill out more than you would normally.

3) Make it easy

Use widgets and tools to automate some of the processes so filling the form is quick and easy.  You could add a little javascript date picker, for instance, if you need that kind of information.  This is where Postcode Anywhere’s address lookup tool comes in – not only does it make entering lengthy addresses easy (typically cutting keystrokes by 80%), but the data you do capture will be accurate and typo-free.  Everybody loves these neat little tools that make life online easier – and they make you look good.

Postcode Anywhere, top suppliers of the “what’s my postcode” web service, are launching a “hug-a-postie” campaign this Christmas to highlight the importance of adding your postcode to all mail.

Which got me thinking – it really is a difficult job being a postman, isn’t it?  Just look at the job description from Royal Mail:

You’ll need to be:

  • The sort of person who enjoys working with other people, as well as on your own.
  • An early riser (early starts are likely)
  • Able to work to tight deadlines
  • The face of Royal Mail
  • Able to carry mail pouches up to 16 kg (35lbs) in weight
  • Able to carry and lift mailbags up to 11kg in weight
  • Able to push trolleys of up to 250kg
  • The holder of a full driving licence with no more than 6 penalty points
(Apparently they also “welcome applications from disabled people”… how will that work?  Not to be discriminatory but I don’t see any paraplegics on the trapeze)
This has led me to picture the ideal postie:
ideal postman

ideal postman

I still find it amazing that people will moan and moan about their postman and then make their jobs that much more difficult by leaving out the postcode.
Click here for PCA’s postcode finder.

Interest is heating up a little about TheWebService’s latest offering, route optimization (or optimisation) as a service.  TheWebService was even up for an award last night for “most innovative service” for the productat the ICT Awards.  So I thought I’d give a little run-down of what it actually is and what the benefits are to business.  It’s also on the Postcode Anywhere site on the route optimisation tab (there’s more info there); there’s a free trial to download and have a play with.

What is route optimization/optimisation?

Route optimization finds the best possible route along more than one stopping-off point.  It can cut journey times, petrol use and petrol costs by up to 30%.  It’s clear that for any haulage company, it makes sense to route-optimize.

What has this got to do with cloud computing?

The route optimization software offered by TheWebService is available over the Internet, so it’s a classic example of how delivering web services over the cloud can deliver added value for SMEs.  The service is available for a few pence/cents per use, so when you consider it saves a few hundred pounds/dollars every time you plan a route you can see the ROI is very impressive indeed.

So if you’ve got a haulage company, or ever have to make deliveries along several stopping-off points, then the benefits of this route-op logistics routing software over the Internet is obvious.

Transport Logistics

There are a few other solutions on the Internet, but I don’t believe they offer such a comprehensive, cure-all solution.  What’s more, TheWebService/PostcodeAnywhere solution is the only one to offer pay-per-use, so it doesn’t matter if you only make one trip a year – a few clicks, a few pence/cents, and you’ll save hundreds of dollars/pounds, whether you want to plan the best or fastest route for your lorry, or even how to visit all your relatives over Christmas in one night…

I reckon it’s worth a try!

Despite the huge announcement of this cloud computing development platform last week, the blogoshpere has been relatively quiet.  Now we’ve had a little time to reflect, what does Windows Azure really mean for cloud computing?  What will it mean for the future of web and software development, as well as the future of computing?

If you are so inclined, you can read a lot of glossy bumf in the Windows Azure factsheet which doesn’t really tell you a great deal.  One key message to take from it, however, is this one:

Windows Azure is an open platform that will support both Microsoft and non-Microsoft languages and environments.

It will certainly be easier for software developers to make cloud-based applications.  Not only that, but there will finally be some kind of universal standard for the development of all things web-based. This is exactly what we were discussing a few weeks ago – if cloud computing is going to support mass adoption (and I think it will) then Microsoft has made a massive coup and “leapfrogged” the market again. A cross-environment cloud computing platform from Microsoft is just what the doctor ordered.

Concerns

Putting cloud computing into the spotlight means that Microsoft will inevitably draw fire from the doubters and conspiracy theorists.  These sorts of comments are highlighted as being all the more ridiculous when we read on message boards things like: “Call me paranoid, but all I see in the ‘cloud’ is a future of oppressive information oligarchs. No silver lining to this one methinks” (that from the PC Pro forum) and less intense comments like: “Keep control of your data… keep it on your own desktop!” (Times Online feedback)

Call me paranoid, but all I see in the ‘cloud’ is a future of oppressive information oligarchs.

As ever, most of the negatives come fom people who don’t really know what they’re talking about.  The unknown breeds fear and the idea of having your personal data looked after by someone in some ethereal and indiscrete “cloud” gives some people the willies if they think about it for too long.  But this is this no more a leap of faith than storing data electronically on your own system rather than physically in a notepad or book.

There is also the question of where this leaves Windows 7.  What will it look like?  With all this emphasis on the cloud and fallout from Vista (perceived as needlessly flabby and clumsy) we can expect Windows 7 to be a stripped-down, cleaner on-site operating system.  But will this deter users from using open-source alternatives like Linux for their earth-bound operating system, which may increasingly come to be used for the sole purpose of booting up the computer and managing on-system resources?  If Microsoft plays its cards right, they should squeeze out as much revenue as possible from what may be their last few user-hosted operating systems packages.  And if Windows 7 proves to be stable, lean and reliable, there may never be the mass switch to Linux that some industry insiders predict.  We should remember that XP is so old it is quickly becoming a “legacy” OS, and yet according to Wikipedia, “as of the end of September 2008, Windows XP is the most widely used operating system in the world with a 69% market share, having peaked at 85% in December 2006.”

There may never be the switch to Linux that some insiders predict

This also begs the question of what OS Microsoft will be running on their own servers.  But you can bet it will a simple and stable one.

Another concern centres around cloud computing as a whole.  Ray Ozzie, then man who replaced Bill Gates as Microsft’s chief software architect, says Azure is “a new tier in our industry’s computing architecture” – and for some, this is exactly the problem: more layers mean more code, and more tangled spaghettis of communication across tiers, which this blogger explains here.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this Windows offering can only be a good thing.  With the Microsoft juggernaut firmly behind cloud computing, the only way is up.

Richard Geary, Senior Developer for Postcode Anywhere, said: “This is going to be big.  Very big.  People said before the launch of .NET ‘bah, it’ll never catch on, Microsoft are being weird’ – and look at where it is now.  Remember, this is Microsoft we’re talking about.  If you want a platform for mass adoption, Microsoft have the magic.”