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The Cloud is Not Your Enemy

I am a big supporter of cloud computing and all these technologies that allow you to save your data and work on it through any browser connected to the internet without having to worry about carrying your files with you or whether or not the application you need is installed on the computer you are using. Google Docs is one of the best examples of such applications. It does not only allow you to share your documents with other people online, but you can log into it from anywhere to edit your file and then directly email it as a Word document or Excel spreadsheets without the need to have any actual Office application installed on your computer.

At our workplace, we use Google Docs to keep track of the lists of projects coming in and out of the office. This allows more than one person of our team to work simultaneously on the same file, it also enables us to grant limited access to those who need to view the list but should not be allowed to modify it. We do not need to worry about file versions or duplicated files because we only have one file which is saved in the Google cloud. Worrying about copying the file on to a USB stick or emailing to each other the file as an attachment is a thing of the past. Docs also has a mobile version of the service, so we can check the status of our projects using our mobile phones from anywhere.

Surely there are some risks associated with relying on web applications, a lot of people worry about what happens if the internet goes down, but I am always amused by this question, do people still think that they can work without the internet? It is just like electricity in the sense that our daily lives depend on it. However, for this specific case having the office’s network down is not the end of the world because Google Docs can work in offline mode using Google Gears and then syncs back when the connection is resumed. It is also so cheap to have a backup 3G connection which you can use when the office internet goes down, and obviously you can always have weekly or monthly backups of all your documents downloaded to your local hard drive.

Another fear that people have with such applications is the risk that someone would gain unauthorized access to their documents and then destroy the information or disclose it improperly. It is true that this risk is always there, but one must think logically and realize that companies such as Google spend millions and millions of dollars investing in their security infrastructure – it is practically impossible for any one of us to match their resources. How likely is the existence of someone interested in our information who is willing and capable of breaching the security of Google and at the same time is not deterred by the legal sanctions that can be taken against him if he takes such an action? Not many people.

There is no such thing as a perfectly secure system, yet we still use email, telephone, and fax to communicate on a regular basis because we weighed the benefits and risks associated with using such methods and decided that the benefit outweighed the risk – that’s why we continue to use them. Cloud computing is exactly the same.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.

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Free Software – Free as in Freedom

Richard Stallman, one of the world’s leading activists in the field of free software, was recently here in Oman to speak about this subject. Stallman’s free software is not software that does not cost you anything to get, but one that gives you the freedom to copy, redistribute, modify, and examine the source code of the software. To the supporters of free software, these freedoms are as important as human rights in the digital age, as one should have the right to take control over any software that runs on his computer whether it was at home, school, or business. I understand the philosophy behind this position, but I can’t say that I fully agree with it.

To those who are capable of reading computer source code, debugging system issues, and customizing software on their computer, these rights campaign for by Stallman would be of great importance to the way they use technology, but to the majority of people on this planet, software source code is just as unreadable as software object code, people do not care how their software runs – they just want it to do what it is supposed to do. If what we are after is the best experience for consumers, then less access might be the most effective way of delivering such an experience. The iPhone is one of the most restrictive computing environment and while it is a very powerful device, Apple does not allow anyone to install any application before it examines and approves that software. To the supporters of free software, this is an extreme violation of their right to customize software they use as they see fit, but to the majority of the casual users of the iPhone, this ensures that their phones will not crash because of badly written code.

The issue of who should have control over software has several aspects, while it might make sense for the end user to have control over the software he installs on his computer, if you think of software like any other type of intellectual property, then the author of the software has more right over that control. If I create something I should have the right to reasonably control the distribution and use of my property. It is true that the law of copyright worldwide has not proved to effectively address the needs of the age of the internet, the basic concepts of copyright are still necessary as a tool to provide an incentive for individuals and companies to create more works and to provide them with a framework for making a living off their works. The solution to the failures of the copyright system should not be to trash it completely but to modify it to address the new reality of the web.

Of course, there are a lot of examples of successful free or open source projects all over the internet now, but that cannot reasonably be made the only way for creating all sorts of digital or any creative works. Different industries have different needs and it should be the market that will determine which business model to prevail.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.