A computer game being played on an iPhone. Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian
Google recently launched its high-end Chromebook Pixel, and like previous Chromebooks this notebook computer makes a distinctly 21st Century assumption: that users' data, work and play belong mostly online, not on their own computers. Google isn't alone in pushing this notion, but it's the most powerful evangelist for the shift to what tech people call the "cloud" and away from "local" storage.
Call me unconvinced. Deeply unconvinced.
The cloud evangelists have an alluring pitch. First, they say, we can now count on being connected as much of the time as necessary. Second, these computing and data services becoming a utility like electricity – easier and safer to run from remote servers than on our local systems.
Like almost everyone else, I use lots of cloud services. They start with everything I do from a browser, such as search, microblogging (Twitter), multiuser games, etc. They also include my email (I store a few weeks' worth of messages in an online system that shows me the same inbox and folder structure no matter what computer I'm using) and calendars, but in those cases I'm synchronizing the data to the local machine. And I use several online sites to back up my music and important documents.
But move everything to the cloud, and use it in an on-demand way? No chance, at least not now – and probably not ever.
For one thing, web-based applications simply can't match the power and flexibility of native desktop software, at least not yet. Google Docs do many things well enough for non-complex tasks, but that's not good enough when I need, say, the track changes feature in Microsoft Word or its Linux equivalent, LibreOffice Writer. Online applications are getting better, and they can do some things the offline ones can't, of course; there are tradeoffs that over time will make the online offerings more compelling. And as Google and other web-based software companies make it possible to work offline – you can do that now with Google Docs – one more advantage of local computing will be mooted.
It's harder for me to imagine cloud computing ever being fully trustworthy. The idea that data is like electricity is only partly true. The electron that comes to me from the power grid is identical to the electron that goes to someone else. This isn't true for data, except at the most basic level, where all information can be reduced to zeros and ones. Put a bunch of electrons together and you still have just a bunch of electrons. Put a bunch of bits together in different orders, and they are completely different.
The promoters of the live-in-the-cloud vision tend to minimize the downsides. Online databases are vulnerable to hacking; hardly a day goes by anymore when we don't hear of yet another breach. Outages on networks or individual services are all too common. Centralized databases, owned and operated by big companies, are one-stop shops for government snoops.
One reason the cloud has become so useful is the same reason we should have a "local storage" backup as well: The companies that make disk drives and solid state storage (SSDs) keep improving their technologies, making storage cheaper and with vastly more capacity all the time. You can buy a portable hard disk with 2 terabytes (2 million megabytes) of storage for under $150. The micro-SD card, smaller than a fingernail, now holds 64GB for about $50; eventually it'll hold 2 terabytes at a comparable cost. In fact, the storage industry has outpaced everyone else in tech with its exponential improvements.
There are dangers in local storage, too. The chief one is disk failure. But other mishaps can occur, too, including physical loss of the backup. I made a terrible mistake last fall that cost me weeks of work on a project, because I bungled my backups. I was creating full and incremental backups to several external disk drives, rotating among them to ensure that nothing would be too old. But I made two crucial mistakes: I didn't back up several key folders to my normal online services, because I'd moved them on my laptop to a part of the drive where they were no longer automatically added to the online folders. Worse, I failed to rest the "restore" function of my backup software, which was encrypting the files; when I needed it most, it didn't work. I kicked myself for a couple of weeks, and moved on – with a different and (I believe) much safer routine.
I can't – and don't want to – avoid using the cloud for many tasks. But I won't solely rely on it for backups and working documents. My approach is to use both, and to encrypt my files in both places.