As I wrote recently, cloud computing tends to minimise the role of the desktop operating system. At the same time, though, it makes data – and in particular data lock-in - a key issue. You might not have problems moving from one desktop operating system to another (because they're largely irrelevant to the functioning of the cloud), but you will probably have great difficulty getting your data out of the cloud.
One of the leading proponents of the cloud computing approach, Google, is of course fully aware of this. Its response to the problem is interesting:
Imagine you want to move out of your apartment. When you ask your landlord about the terms of your previous lease, he says that you are free to leave at any time; however, you cannot take all of your things with you - not your photos, your keepsakes, or your clothing. If you're like most people, a restriction like this may cause you to rethink moving altogether. Not only is this a bad situation for you as the tenant, but it's also detrimental to the housing industry as a whole, which no longer has incentive to build better apartments at all.
Although this may seem like a strange analogy, this pretty accurately describes the situation my team, Google's Data Liberation Front, is working hard to combat from an engineering perspective. We're a small team of Google Chicago engineers (named after a Monty Python skit about the Judean People's Front) that aims to make it easy for our users to transfer their personal data in and out of Google's services by building simple import and export functions. Our goal is to "liberate" data so that consumers and businesses using Google products always have a choice when it comes to the technology they use.
The main Data Liberation Front site gives some more details:
The Data Liberation Front is an engineering team at Google whose singular goal is to make it easier for users to move their data in and out of Google products. We do this because we believe that any data that you create in (or import into) a product is your own. We help and consult other engineering teams within Google on how to "liberate" their products. This is our mission statement:
Users own the data they store in any of Google's products. Our team's goal is to give users greater control by making it easier for them to move data in and out.
People usually don't look to see if they can get their data out of a product until they decide one day that they want to leave For this reason, we always encourage people to ask these three questions before starting to use a product that will store their data:
1.Can I get my data out at all?
2.How much is it going to cost to get my data out?
3.How much of my time is it going to take to get my data out?
The ideal answers to these questions are:
2.Nothing more than I'm already paying.
3.As little as possible.
There shouldn't be an additional charge to export your data. Beyond that, if it takes you many hours to get your data out, it's almost as bad as not being able to get your data out at all.
Refreshingly, Google recognises that
We don't think that our products are perfect yet, but we're continuing to work at making it easier to get your data in and out of them.
To that end, down the left-hand side of the opening page of the site, there are links to further pages that detail to what extent, and how, you can extract your data from various Google services.
As well as being welcome, I think this is a shrewd move on Google's part. It is essentially raising the bar for *all* cloud computing providers. It is obviously pretty confident that it can supply good enough services for people to want to keep their data in them, even if they can remove stuff quite easily. The bet is probably that users will shy away from cloud computing providers who *don't* offer the same kind of pledges as Google. It will be interesting to see how the other major players respond.