Joining the Cloud

My classmate Ali Fishner recently blogged about the site Bedpost, which is designed to let you log and track all your sexual encounters. There was some confusion about whether or not Bedpost would classify as a social network. In fact, this is the perfect example of an up and coming breed of sites known as “web applications.”

Web Applications may have social components, but are primarily designed for the benefit of an individual. These applications serve a variety of functions, including email access, mileage tracking, personal budgeting, tax preparation, or fitness logging. Other services include Google Docs, which provides word processing, presentation and spreadsheet applications.

Like Bedpost, most of these applications are designed to track a specific set of data and present it back to you in a meaningful way. Web applications have many advantages over traditional software (programs installed on your computer). For example, there is no need to purchase and install software, you simply navigate to a website from any computer. However, the big advantage is having your documents (word documents, bedpost logs, grocery list, whatever…) stored out in the web. This means that you’re not locked down to your laptop or desktop. You can access your documents from anywhere at any time, so long as you know your username and password.

This is the theory behind cloud computing. A computing cloud is essentially a bank of servers where information is stored. Instead of existing on your laptop’s hard drive your documents reside on a server somewhere out in the cloud. This might seem a little scary at first, but it gives you access to your data 24/7 (assuming the cloud is reliable) and you no longer have to worry about spilling your coffee on your laptop in the middle of writing your thesis paper.

Web applications have become increasingly popular, especially with the advent of smart phones. Cell phones like the iPhone, Blackberry, or the T-Mobile G1 are getting more powerful all the time. With an always on internet connection that fits in your pocket you will never be away from your documents for long.

Now this is getting a bit technical, but what we’re really looking at are “thin clients.” The thin client is an idea that has existed for some time now. Essentially a thin client is your computer, smart phone, or laptop with most of its storage removed. It now acts as a gateway to the cloud where your documents and web applications are stored. All the computing is done in the cloud and your thin client simply allows you to manipulate it.

Imagine you’ve just been working out at the gym. After you’ve showered and dressed you pull out your smart phone and get online to log your latest workout. Later, as you’re getting in your car you notice the meter ran out 10 minutes ago. Unluckily you’ve gotten a $30 parking ticket. Again you pull out your smart phone and log into your budget application. You deduct $30 from your monthly budget. After getting home you hop on your laptop and see how your workouts are trending. The new data you entered today shows a nice increase in performance! You decide to celebrate, maybe a nice dinner? After checking your budget for the month it looks like that parking ticket set you back more than you thought. Maybe just some ice cream and a good book. These are just some of the many benefits to cloud computing.

What does this have to do with PR? Well for starters, when you’re working in a specialized industry (or aspiring to) then it’s important to have a grasp on where that industry is going. If you’re an expert, then so much the better. When you can talk jargon with the engineers and then turn around and lay everything out for the shareholders in plain English, then you know you’re doing well.