The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google. Nicholas Carr. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2008. 278 pp.
The future of computing, the book argues, is utility computing. Information Technology (IT) will reside “in the cloud” in a centralized fashion, and will be controlled by a few service providers who have built massive data centers. Just like electricity, IT will be delivered as a service to home users and to small and big companies. The IT departments of these companies may become irrelevant. There will be no need for them because “individuals and business units will be able to control the processing of information directly.”
High bandwidth availability makes utility computing possible. Soon, companies will outsource all of their IT functions from storage to applications to programming, to service providers. As a service provider, Google has started this trend with their Google Apps. Similarly, Amazon has offered software and hardware as a service. For instance, if a company needs an application, all they have to do is tell one of these service providers and the application will be available in no time. They don’t have to go through the hassle of procuring equipment, hiring programmers, and developing the application.
This next big thing has many names – cloud computing, utility computing, grid computing, and software/hardware as a service (SAAS) – but the book called it the World Wide Computer.
The premise of the switch from internal IT to the World Wide Computer is that too many resources are wasted on IT – labor, hardware, software, redundant systems, and overbuilt IT assets. The book contends that IT costs too much for what it delivers. There is just an excess in servers and computing capacity. Ultimately, it’s not the technology but the economics of it that will prevail. The cloud will make efficient use of IT resources.
Because everything is wired, physical location will not matter anymore. The same is true with software licensing. The model will be much like the electricity – the client pays for usage, not the costly software license that have made companies like Microsoft very rich. The new model, the book argues is very much like the Google Apps model. Users will be empowered when tapping the World Wide Computer – the possibilities are endless with its infinite information and computing power.
For people who have been following the computing revolution, Carr’s concept of utility computing is old news. IBM and other IT visionaries have been talking about utility computing for years. However, his book has successfully articulated the concept by drawing the parallelism of the evolution of electrification and the evolution of computing.
The history of electrification was well researched from the first waterwheels to windmills to the current centralized power generators. Similarly, the history of computing was well researched too, from Hollerith’s machine to IBM mainframe to personal computing, to client-server computing, and web computing. Along the way, Carr infused the business and economic forces that shaped their current form. He likewise talked about the social impacts of these – how it has changed societies and consequently changed people’s lives for the better. He discussed in great length the economic and social impact of the World Wide Computer – how the world will become more increasingly multi-polar instead of being united, the weaknesses of free flowing information, and the loss of human privacy.
Inasmuch as I agree with Carr’s position of utility computing, I do not believe that everything will go to the “cloud”. In my opinion, the future will be hybrid computing. There is so much computing power in every personal computer, laptop and mobile device that not utilizing them is a waste.
The IT department of large corporations will not disappear. The book missed the point that for some companies, the IT system is strategic, and they cannot simply outsource all of their IT functions. For instance, financial companies rely heavily on their IT system. Take it away from the stock market, for example, and trading will halt. The point is that: IT has varying degrees of importance for each company. But for electricity, there is none. Everybody needs electricity since it’s a commodity and can easily be sourced from other sources (such as using internal generators). IT cannot simply be commoditized – companies need specialized applications.
Another issue is data security and privacy. In the cloud, we don’t know where the data is stored. Intellectual property and company knowledge are just too important for the company to be hosted somewhere where security and privacy laws are not well defined. Unless there is a global law on data security and privacy, companies will hesitate to put their precious information in the cloud.
Finally, there is the law of unintended consequences. We cannot simply have a complete picture of the future. It is ironic for instance that because of the current concern for the environment, companies and homes alike may be generating their own power using solar, windmill or other means, thus decentralizing the electricity generation once again. The use of electrification as a metaphor for the World Wide Computer may not be accurate after all.