June 11, 2010

The future of cloud computing

Overview of responses

A solid majority of technology experts and stakeholders participating in the fourth Future of the Internet survey expect that by 2020 most people will access software applications online and share and access information through the use of remote server networks, rather than depending primarily on tools and information housed on their individual, personal computers. They say that cloud computing will become more dominant than the desktop in the next decade. In other words, most users will perform most computing and communicating activities through connections to servers operated by outside firms.

Among the most popular cloud services now are social networking sites (the 500 million people using Facebook are being social in the cloud), webmail services like Hotmail and Yahoo mail, microblogging and blogging services such as Twitter and WordPress, video-sharing sites like YouTube, picture-sharing sites such as Flickr, document and applications sites like Google Docs, social-bookmarking sites like Delicious, business sites like eBay, and ranking, rating and commenting sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor.

This does not mean, however, that most of these experts think the desktop computer will disappear soon. The majority sees a hybrid life in the next decade, as some computing functions move towards the cloud and others remain based on personal computers.

The highly engaged, diverse set of respondents to an online, opt-in survey included 895 technology stakeholders and critics. The study was fielded by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.  Some 71% agreed with the statement:

  • “By 2020, most people won’t do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Instead, they will work in Internet-based applications such as Google Docs, and in applications run from smartphones. Aspiring application developers will develop for smartphone vendors and companies that provide Internet-based applications, because most innovative work will be done in that domain, instead of designing applications that run on a PC operating system.”

Some 27% agreed with the opposite statement, which posited:

  • “By 2020, most people will still do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Internet-based applications like Google Docs and applications run from smartphones will have some functionality, but the most innovative and important applications will run on (and spring from) a PC operating system. Aspiring application designers will write mostly for PCs.”

Most of those surveyed noted that cloud computing will continue to expand and come to dominate information transactions because it offers many advantages, allowing users to have easy, instant, and individualized access to tools and information they need wherever they are, locatable from any networked device. Some experts noted that people in technology-rich environments will have access to sophisticated-yet-affordable local networks that allow them to “have the cloud in their homes.”

Most of the experts noted that people want to be able to use many different devices to access data and applications, and – in addition to the many mentions of smartphones driving the move to the cloud – some referred to a future featuring many more different types of networked appliances. A few mentioned the “internet of things” – or a world in which everyday objects have their own IP addresses and can be tied together in the same way that people are now tied together by the internet. So, for instance, if you misplace your TV remote, you can find it because it is tagged and locatable through the internet.

Some experts in this survey said that for many individuals the switch to mostly cloud-based work has already occurred, especially through the use of browsers and social networking applications. They point out that many people today are primarily using smartphones, laptops, and desktop computers to network with remote servers and carry out tasks such as working in Google Docs, following web-based RSS (really simple syndication) feeds, uploading photos to Flickr and videos to YouTube, doing remote banking, buying, selling and rating items at Amazon.com, visiting with friends on Facebook, updating their Twitter accounts and blogging on WordPress.

Many of the people who agreed with the statement that cloud computing will expand as the internet evolves said the desktop will not die out but it will be used in new, improved ways in tandem with remote computing. Some survey participants said they expect that a more sophisticated desktop-cloud hybrid will be people’s primary interface with information. They predicted the desktop and individual, private networks will be able to provide most of the same conveniences as the cloud but with better functionality, overall efficiency, and speed. Some noted that general-purpose in-home PC servers can do much of the work locally via a connection to the cloud to tap into resources for computing-intensive tasks.

Among the defenses for a continuing domination of the desktop, many said that small, portable devices have limited appeal as a user interface and they are less than ideal for doing work. They also expressed concern about the security of information stored in the “cloud” (on other institutions’ servers), the willingness of cloud operators to handle personal information in a trustworthy way, and other problems related to control over data when it is stored in the cloud, rather than on personally-controlled devices.

Some respondents observed that putting all or most of faith in remotely accessible tools and data puts a lot of trust in the humans and devices controlling the clouds and exercising gatekeeping functions over access to that data. They expressed concerns that cloud dominance by a small number of large firms may constrict the internet’s openness and its capacity to inspire innovation – that people are giving up some degree of choice and control in exchange for streamlined simplicity.

A number of people said cloud computing presents difficult security problems and further exposes private information to governments, corporations, thieves, opportunists, and human and machine error.

Survey participants noted that there are also quality of service and compatibility hurdles that must be crossed successfully before cloud computing gains more adopters. Among the other limiting factors the expert respondents mentioned were: the lack of broadband spectrum to handle the load if everyone is using the cloud; the variability of cost and access in different parts of the world and the difficulties that lie ahead before they can reach the ideal of affordable access anywhere, anytime; and complex legal issues, including cross-border intellectual property and privacy conflicts.

Among the other observations made by those taking the survey were: large businesses are far less likely to put most of their work “in the cloud” anytime soon because of control and security issues; most people are not able to discern the difference between accessing data and applications on their desktop and in the cloud; low-income people in least-developed areas of the world are most likely to use the cloud, accessing it through connection by phone.

Also in this report:

» Survey method

» Will we live in the cloud or the desktop?: Main Findings

» About this report

‘Tension pairs’ were designed to provoke detailed elaborations

This material was gathered in the fourth “Future of the Internet” survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. The surveys are conducted through online questionnaires to which a selected group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public have been invited to respond. The surveys present potential-future scenarios to which respondents react with their expectations based on current knowledge and attitudes. You can view detailed results from the 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 surveys here: http://www.pewinternet.org/topics/Future-of-the-Internet.aspx and http://www.elon.edu/e-web/predictions/expertsurveys/default.xhtml,  Expanded results are also published in the “Future of the Internet” book series published by Cambria Press.

The surveys are conducted to help accurately identify current attitudes about the potential future for networked communications and are not meant to imply any type of futures forecast.

Respondents to the Future of the Internet IV survey, fielded from Dec. 2, 2009 to Jan. 11, 2010, were asked to consider the future of the Internet-connected world between now and 2020 and the likely innovation that will occur. They were asked to assess 10 different “tension pairs” – each pair offering two different 2020 scenarios with the same overall theme and opposite outcomes – and they were asked to select the one most likely choice of two statements. The tension pairs and their alternative outcomes were constructed to reflect previous statements about the likely evolution of the Internet. They were reviewed and edited by the Pew Internet Advisory Board. Results are being released in five reports over the course of 2010.

The results that are reported in this report are responses to a tension pair that relates to the future of the Internet and cloud computing.

Results to five other tension pairs – relating to the Internet and the evolution of intelligence; reading and the rendering of knowledge; identity and authentication; gadgets and applications; and the core values of the Internet – were released earlier in 2010 at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They can be read at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Future-of-the-Internet-IV.aspx.  

Results from a tension pair requesting that people share their opinions on the impact of the internet on institutions were discussed at the Capital Cabal in Washington, DC, on March 31, 2010 and can be read at:  http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Impact-of-the-Internet-on-Institutions-in-the-Future.aspx.

Results from a tension pair assessing people’s opinions on the future of the semantic web were announced at the WWW2010 and FutureWeb conferences in Raleigh, NC, April 28, 2010 and can be read at: http:// pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Semantic-Web.aspx

Final results from the Future IV survey will be released at the 2010 World Future Society conference (http://www.wfs.org/meetings.htm).

Please note that this survey is primarily aimed at eliciting focused observations on the likely impact and influence of the Internet – not on the respondents’ choices from the pairs of predictive statements. Many times when respondents “voted” for one scenario over another, they responded in their elaboration that both outcomes are likely to a degree or that an outcome not offered would be their true choice. Survey participants were informed that “it is likely you will struggle with most or all of the choices and some may be impossible to decide; we hope that will inspire you to write responses that will explain your answer and illuminate important issues.”

Experts were located in two ways. First, several thousand were identified in an extensive canvassing of scholarly, government, and business documents from the period 1990-1995 to see who had ventured predictions about the future impact of the Internet. Several hundred of them participated in the first three surveys conducted by Pew Internet and Elon University, and they were recontacted for this survey. Second, expert participants were hand-picked due to their positions as stakeholders in the development of the Internet.

Here are some of the respondents: Clay Shirky, Esther Dyson, Doc Searls, Nicholas Carr, Susan Crawford, David Clark, Jamais Cascio, Peter Norvig, Craig Newmark, Hal Varian, Howard Rheingold, Andreas Kluth, Jeff Jarvis, Andy Oram, Kevin Werbach, David Sifry, Dan Gillmor, Marc Rotenberg, Stowe Boyd,  Andrew Nachison, Anthony Townsend, Ethan Zuckerman, Tom Wolzien, Stephen Downes, Rebecca MacKinnon, Jim Warren, Sandra Brahman, Barry Wellman, Seth Finkelstein, Jerry Berman, Tiffany Shlain, and Stewart Baker. 

The respondents’ remarks reflect their personal positions on the issues and are not the positions of their employers, however their leadership roles in key organizations help identify them as experts. Following is a representative list of some of the institutions at which respondents work or have affiliations: Google, Microsoft. Cisco Systems, Yahoo!, Intel, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Ericsson Research, Nokia, New York Times, O’Reilly Media, Thomson Reuters, Wired magazine, The Economist magazine, NBC, RAND Corporation, Verizon Communications, Linden Lab, Institute for the Future, British Telecom, Qwest Communications, Raytheon, Adobe, Meetup, Craigslist, Ask.com, Intuit, MITRE Corporation

Department of Defense, Department of State, Federal Communications Commission, Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Social Security Administration, General Services Administration, British OfCom, World Wide Web Consortium, National Geographic Society, Benton Foundation, Linux Foundation, Association of Internet Researchers, Internet2, Internet Society, Institute for the Future, Santa Fe Institute, Yankee Group

Harvard University, MIT, Yale University, Georgetown University, Oxford Internet Institute,  Princeton University, Carnegie-Mellon University, University of Pennsylvania, University of California-Berkeley, Columbia University, University of Southern California, Cornell University, University of North Carolina, Purdue University, Duke University , Syracuse University, New York University, Northwestern University, Ohio University ,Georgia Institute of Technology, Florida State University, University of Kentucky, University of Texas, University of Maryland, University  of Kansas, University of Illinois, Boston College, University of Tulsa, University of Minnesota, Arizona State, Michigan State University, University of California-Irvine, George Mason University, University of Utah, Ball State University, Baylor University, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, University of Georgia, Williams College, and University of Florida.

While many respondents are at the pinnacle of Internet leadership, some of the survey respondents are “working in the trenches” of building the web. Most of the people in this latter segment of responders came to the survey by invitation because they are on the email list of the Pew Internet & American Life Project or are otherwise known to the Project. They are not necessarily opinion leaders for their industries or well-known futurists, but it is striking how much their views were distributed in ways that paralleled those who are celebrated in the technology field.

While a wide range of opinion from experts, organizations, and interested institutions was sought, this survey should not be taken as a representative canvassing of Internet experts. By design, this survey was an “opt in,” self-selecting effort. That process does not yield a random, representative sample. The quantitative results are based on a non-random online sample of 895 Internet experts and other Internet users, recruited by email invitation, Twitter, or Facebook. Since the data are based on a non-random sample, a margin of error cannot be computed, and results are not projectable to any population other than the respondents in this sample.

Many of the respondents are Internet veterans – 50% have been using the Internet since 1992 or earlier, with 11% actively involved online since 1982 or earlier. When asked for their primary area of Internet interest, 15% of the survey participants identified themselves as research scientists; 14% as business leaders or entrepreneurs; 12% as consultants or futurists, 12% as authors, editors or journalists; 9% as technology developers or administrators; 7% as advocates or activist users; 3% as pioneers or originators; 2% as legislators, politicians or lawyers; and 25% specified their primary area of interest as “other.”

The answers these respondents gave to the questions are given in two columns. The first column covers the answers of 371 longtime experts who have regularly participated in these surveys. The second column covers the answers of all the respondents, including the 524 who were recruited by other experts or by their association with the Pew Internet Project. Interestingly, there is not great variance between the smaller and bigger pools of respondents.