The most misused phrase on the Internet
Have you been in the industry long enough to remember Groupware? Since we worked with Lotus at the time, we certainly do. We also remember that the Lotus executives hated that term, because it was so fuzzy. We would use the old Saturday Night Live joke, "it's a floor wax AND a dessert topping!" Collaborative computing was the more descriptive term for products like Lotus Notes, but even that term was confusing for some -- Is it e-mail? Is it a database? The media and even customers want to know: What box can I find a product in? What else is in that box? What problem will I solve if I buy something from that box? Break it down for me, please, and tell me specifically what the heck it is so I can determine if I even need it.
Some of the recent griping about cloud computing -- one of the latest confusing terms in the technology industry -- brought me back to the Groupware issue. Bob Evans of InformationWeek this week cited heavy hitter tech industry CEOs complaining about the term cloud computing and is challenging his readers to come up with an alternative descriptor. Mike Workman of Pillar Data Systems has blogged many times, including this week, about the term. One post this summer had a title I wish I had thought of first (from one of my kids' favorite books), "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs."
Just for fun, I went to Wikipedia and here's the definition they offer:
Cloud computing is Internet- ("cloud-") based development and use of computer technology ("computing"). In concept, it is a paradigm shift whereby details are abstracted from the users who no longer need knowledge of, expertise in, or control over the technology infrastructure "in the cloud" that supports them. It typically involves the provision of dynamically scalable and often virtualised resources as a service over the Internet.
The term cloud is used as a metaphor for the Internet, based on how the Internet is depicted in computer network diagrams and is an abstraction of the underlying infrastructure it conceals. Typical cloud computing services provide common business applications online that are accessed from a web browser, while the software and data are stored on the servers.
These services are broadly divided into three categories: Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). The name cloud computing was inspired by the cloud symbol that is often used to represent the Internet in flow charts and diagrams."
Okay. Is everybody all clear now? No, I guess not.
What is it about the technology industry that seems to reward obfuscation rather than clarification? Why not simply tell people what a company is selling and what exactly it does? In a crowded noisy market it is important to stand out from the competition, but that is not license for making it harder to understand what you do.
Imagine if the trusty old telephone (the land-line telephone, not the cell phone or smartphone) was described as a device that handles signaling and audio information for transmitting speech or computerized information over distances, usually by converting sounds into electric impulses that are sent through a network of wires and cables? Try to say that in a 15-second radio spot. We might still be using walkie-talkies (and think about how descriptive that product name is, by the way).
I'm fascinated with the debate about the name of this category and some recent attempts to boil it down, such as virtualized infrastructure (from one of the CEOs quoted by Evans -- not that much clearer) or hosted computing or outsourced infrastructure (from one of the commenters to Evans' blog -- better, but not quite at the cigar level). There is definitely a buzz about cloud computing, but people may be buzzing about it because they are trying to figure out what it is so they can determine if they need it or are offering it. My own field of communications is often blamed for this level of confusion, as news releases and product presentations can be full of jargon and terminology that isn't clear. Please understand that the PR people who deliver that news release or presentation to you probably talked themselves hoarse trying to convince others in the company to break it down and make it clearer. This is the reason we tend to boil down an announcement in a quick e-mail or telephone call to influencers so they can get the gist of an announcement that has morphed into something less understandable. We really are trying to help people understand what the product is and what it does, even if we often are forced to use language that is cloud computing clear (pudding in a cloud?).
Here's hoping that challenges from journalists and executives frustrated by the confusion will lead to a real descriptor that clearly defines cloud computing in a way that even my Mom could understand what it is and what it does. And perhaps it will lead to plain English speaking in general about technology in the future, which would be nirvana in my book.