Kill Your Computer

The cloud wants to set you free.

Is cloud computing the path to a harmonious life?

I spend all day in front of the computer, so I spend lots of time trying to get along with it. Does the computer like this application? Or does it make my machine feel bloaty and slow? Should I finally learn some keyboard shortcuts or just stick with the mouse, even though my wrist is about to fall off? For years, I’ve been an on-and-off devotee of the Mac application Quicksilver. It presents itself as a powerful “program launcher”—allowing you to load Web sites, find phone numbers, and e-mail files with a few keystrokes—but it’s really a philosophy. If you become adept at Quicksilver, you reach a state of wei wu wei—acting without doing. Here’s how the site puts it: “Quicksilver becomes an extension of yourself; the process fades away leaving only results.”Ohm.

This philosophy seems right to me—in my experience, the best computer is one that disappears when you are using it. Many of us who use computers all day don’t really “like” computers. We just want the box to work—i.e., get out of our way so that we can get things done. Sometimes, with your computer, it’s unclear who is serving whom. Watch as the user attends the computer during program installs, crash recoveries, and tedious system upgrades. Watch the user clean the hard disk and cure it of viruses. As with all troubled relationships, setting ground rules may help. I’ve found “al3x’s Rules for Computing Happiness” very inspiring. A sample:

  • Use as little software as possible.
  • Use software that does one thing well.
  • Do not use software that does many things poorly.
  • Use a plain text editor that you know well. Not a word processor, a plain text editor.
  • Do not use your text editor for tasks other than editing text.

The ideal of “making the computer go away” has been a career-long goal of Sam Schillace, who you might call the Lando Calrissian of Google. He watches over Google’s Cloud City, its communication and collaboration apps such as Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar. “Cloud computing” is a wispy concept; Gmail may be the easiest way to grasp it. Your mail is stored on Google’s servers—otherwise known as the cloud—rather than on your hard drive. Thanks to that, you can access your messages from any Web browser, not just your own machine.

That sounds great, and it is, but many critics have pointed out the downsides. Last April in Slate, Paul Boutin argued that there are plenty of reasons to stay on the ground: the flakiness of network connections, the fact that cloud applications have fewer features than their desktop counterparts, the useful processing power of the desktop computer, and the healthy desire to unplug from the Internet on occasion. Since last year, major cloud apps like Gmail have added offline functionality, and browsers are getting much faster at running these apps. (Take the new Safari out for a drive.) Yet Boutin’s objections still stand. Google Docs still awaits pagination, for example, and a wonky Internet connection can transform working in the cloud into an insane-making experience. Plus, many people just don’t like the idea of their files and photos and stuff being stored in a murky Internet netherworld.

But those people will feel very differently about that netherworld when their hard drive crashes and their treasured family photos are safely floating in the cloud. (Which brings me to another rule of computing happiness: Hard drives are physical devices. They will break. Repeat: They will break. Try Mozy if you are lazy.) It’s amazing how tough it is to sever the attachment to your physical computer. Schillace has a parlor trick that he plays with journalists: He offers to delete and reformat the hard drives on their machines and his own. (So far, no one has taken him up on this offer.) His message is, My computer, unlike yours, is just an appliance to access the cloud; I am free of it.

In Schillace’s view, the computer goes away when you trust the cloud. “Work when you want to work,” he says. “Don’t worry where things are. Just go to a browser and do your work.” Web or cloud apps are meant to be open, easy, light. Their lack of features is a virtue. Don’t fuss with fonts; do your writing. When collaborating, don’t worry about checking out the doc like a library book, just let everybody edit it at once and have the computer sort out the conflicts. Google’s Web apps try not to dictate human etiquette. E-mail, I.M., and sharing apps assist us in a new work model that pushes smaller, more frequent interactions. Schillace will rhapsodize about the cloud as a “superconductor for communication between people.”

The danger for Schillace and his colleagues is that an application like Google Docs will become “Microsoft Word in a browser” and take 10 minutes to load. “You can get loved to death and try to incorporate too many suggestions,” says Schillace. “That’s an easy failure.” With the pressure to be “better,” to create a richer application, comes the difficulty of keeping things simple. Schillace realizes how “it’s very easy to ruin Gmail,” yet the Gmail team has kept the app lean by keeping it modular. You can opt in or out of features such as chat, tasks, and the surprisingly popular Old Snakey.

Schillace, who came to Google after co-creating one of the first Web-based collaborative word processors, Writely, is surprised at how quickly the whole cloud thing has taken off. Not just the sheer numbers of people trying out cloud apps, but the “OK, I get it” factor. The willingness to see that once you’re inside a browser window, it doesn’t matter whether you are on a Mac, a PC, or a mobile phone. The rising popularity of Netbooks can be taken as a sign that people see that “this cloud stuff actually works.” Why drop $2,000 on a new laptop when most of what you need to do runs online? The so-called “casual gaming” market is also exploding. Yes, those little Flash games you play in your browser are expected by some analysts to be a billion-dollar industry in four years.

Of course, there’s a lot to be worked out before we ascend into cloud heaven. Who is paying for all this stuff again? Is my data really secure? At the moment, deploying a mix of cloud and noncloud apps seems to be the sensible middle way. But there is something freeing and almost intoxicating about embracing the cloud mindset. What if I stopped lugging around 7,000 photos and just put the 200 best on Flickr? What if I just let Google figure out who my most important contacts are? Do I really need all my college papers on my hard drive? Computers can be very heavy and depressing. Send in the clouds.