The Tablet and the Cloud

Until very recently cloud computing was largely a theoretical concept, and the recent generation of tablets was essentially a technology seeking a need to fulfill. That is, individuals and organizations had begun to move digital resources to clouds in a rather disconnected way to save money and to make certain things more accessible. But most cloud offerings were little more than virtual hard drives somewhere in cyberspace. What has largely been missing is an overarching, effective strategy of moving nearly everything to the cloud so that it was available from nearly any device. At the same time tablets, including Apple’s iPad and a plethora of new Android tablets, have been constrained by two challenges: they really aren’t suitable for use as primary computing devices, and the problem of keeping digital assets in sync with the primary computer is considerable. But clarity concerning tablets and clouds has improved significantly with Apple’s recent announcement of their new iCloud architecture. 

Working in the Cloud
Google, Microsoft, and even organizations such as Amazon have delved into cloud technology as a way of centrally storing information. Google in particular has made cloud storage and accessibility from nearly any device the cornerstone of their developing computing architecture. But what Apple has done with the iCloud, including accessibility from their range of mobile devices such as the iPad, is to leapfrog other providers in a quantum way.

I am not suggesting that the iCloud strategy is either the pinnacle achievement of cloud computing nor that it is perfect. Indeed, awe over the latest technology is analogous to racing to catch and hold a snowflake in your hand — it’s instantly gone and replaced by another. That’s one of the challenges with following technology: understanding the significance of true advancements, and identifying legitimate trends in the landscape of numerous flashy announcements. Apple’s iCloud is very much a noteworthy development that establishes a new plateau in an important technical trajectory.

The Potential Game-Changer
What makes iCloud so enticing is that it allows users to store nearly every digital asset — including music, documents, photos, e-books, email, calendars, and various others — on cloud servers in cyberspace and not on the user’s own computers or their mobile devices. Further, these digital assets are then accessible through the range of Apple’s devices — and on Windows-based computers as well. If this technology truly works as Apple suggests it does, then it could be a game-changer. When Steve Jobs announced iCloud at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in June, he reportedly emphasized several times, “It just works.” This was likely a reference to both Apple’s underwhelming previous cloud attempt, MobileMe, and also to competitors, including Microsoft. But it’s also possible that this was recognition of the fact that users don’t care about clouds and other technical concepts — they just want things to work. 

Google is very actively pursuing its own cloud/mobile device strategy, and no doubt significant enhancements are forthcoming. For Microsoft, though, cloud computing has lagged well behind, along with other significant industry trends, and may in part signify a widely noted desktop computing paradigm still prevalent for the company. As an indication of the significance of iCloud for the highly competitive technology marketplace, a recent article in Business Insider states: “For Google, iCloud is annoying; For Microsoft, it’s a humiliation.” This is essentially a valid assessment of the impact of iCloud on competitors, but may well underestimate the impact on Google.  

As a further sign of the shifting landscape in computing, industry research group IHS iSupply reports that Apple has now surpassed Hewlett-Packard as the top chip purchaser. And in May, Apple surpassed Microsoft as the world's biggest technology company, based on market value. Apple has become a juggernaut that competitors underestimate at their own peril.  Perhaps most notable to those of us who have watched the company over three decades, Apple today shows no signs of losing its competitive edge in innovation and execution. This level of consistent, sustained performance has not always been a hallmark of Apple.

Finding the Fit for Education
Tablets and clouds are indicative of the rapidly emerging technology changes that our institutions must not only accommodate, but also embrace.  And the impact of the changes will be tectonic. We have left the perceived safety of a highly controlled environment in which we determined both the devices and the means of access to data. Today, users are bringing forth a range of devices and platforms that will connect to our systems and networks for comprehensive services, including teaching and learning. Comprehensive data centers, virtual private networks, fixed computing labs, and nearly all other components of our legacy infrastructures will be transformed through the tablet and the cloud. The most important aspects of strategic planning are agility and adaptability. These characteristics are critical to our ability to successfully create our own futures in this new environment.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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