Cloud computing for consumers: The downsides

If you read much about tech, you've undoubtedly been told by some snarky writer that if you're not headed for the cloud, you're hopelessly unhip, behind the times, and probably overweight. You know -- the cloud, that repository of all things digital contained on giant servers owned by someone else out there in cyberspace.

Well, wait a minute. I'm not saying everything about the cloud is hype and bunk. It's not, particularly for businesses that don't need to own and operate infrastructure. But for us regular consumers, the cloud should be seen as a choice for some functions not an absolute must have, much less a measure of your IQ and sex appeal.

The cloud has some real downsides you should know about. Here are some of them, some suggestions of how to do things down here on terra firma, and a few tips on when the cloud really does make sense.

One of the dirty, not-so-secret secrets in techlandia is that vendors want to lock you into their products. Unlike, say, makers of dishwasher soap, who also want to keep your business, but have no way to force you to stay loyal, tech vendors have a club to beat you with. It's an issue that permeates the fundamental nature of the cloud, and you need to watch out for it.

The Trouble with Offline

To understand that club, think about working offline, which is the first and most severe downside of the cloud. If you don't have a live Internet connection, there are lots of things you can't do, like see your email, edit or compose your documents, retrieve a backed up file and so on.

Nonsense, you say. Didn't Google just announce that you can work offline? Not exactly. Google has an app that lets you look at your Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs offline -- but not change them. Not so much a problem with calendar, but a big drawback with Docs. What's more, even that limited offline capability is limited to users of Google's Chrome browser. Want to use Firefox or IE? Too bad. That's what I mean by lock-in.

At some point, Google says it will introduce offline editing. However, when it does, you'll still face the lock-in problem because Google Docs is all that will work. Me, I use Microsoft Office, Open Office and Google Docs, depending on the preference of my clients. I want to work on them when I want to work on them, and I don't want to be locked in to any of them.

When the Lights Go Out

There's a somewhat different issue that's related to the offline problem: outages. And that means exactly what it sounds like it means; the service is down for some reason that has nothing to do with you. And since Google offers no support for its free apps, all you can do if there is an outage is troll the online forums and hope it gets fixed before it causes you a significant problem. Telling your boss that you can't give her the report because Google Docs is down is only a cut above the classic "the dog ate my homework" excuse.

Outages really do happen. Google and Microsoft were both hit by cloud outages last week, with Google Docs going dark for an hour and Microsoft Hotmail, Office 365 and SkyDrive knocked offline for three hours. All of those services have had longer failures in the past. That's not to say they are inherently unreliable, but if it's in the cloud, you have to assume that sooner or later there will be an outage.

Even when Google Docs is available, it simply does not have the horsepower of either Microsoft Office or Open Office, which is free, by the way. I know, both of those suites are packed with more features than you'll ever use. But it's nice to have extra features when you need them. Would you prefer to be the one who decides what bells and whistles you can add to a document, or do you want to leave that choice to Google?

Cloud (In)Security

When someone else is holding on to your data, you have more to worry about than outages. Privacy and security are issues you need to consider. Hacking is more common than ever this year, and even responsible companies suffer attacks and inadvertent data leaks -- not to mention, the new, untested vendors who seem to pop up every day and don't necessarily have a real security plan in place.

Are there times when the cloud is a good bet for consumers? Of course. A lot of people are doing their backups in the cloud, and given the huge volume of digital stuff we all accumulate these days, it makes sense. Yes, there's a potential security issue, so I'd advise you to read up on the vendors who offer this service and pick one that gets good reviews from reviewers on trustworthy sites. You have to worry about a company going out of business and leaving you stranded, but that's probably a smaller risk than having your backup hard drive fail.

Collaboration is a plus as well. There are a number of free, or inexpensive, cloud offerings that make it easy for a workgroup to share and edit documents and other material. And it's great to have collections of photos online, making it very easy to share. So use the cloud when appropriate, but don't buy into the hype.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net. Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline

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Bill Snyder

CIO (US)
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