G.ho.st and online operating systems: Much Ado About Nothing?

I was forwarded a recent New York Times article on G.ho.st by Patrick Meier. Perhaps Patrick thought I would be interested in this because of the references to peacebuilding in the Israeli-Palestinian context. .

Even before I clicked on G.ho.st I knew what I was in for when I read this quote by Zvi Schreiber, the creator of the online operating system:

“I felt the ultimate goal was to offer every human being a computing environment which is free, and which is not tied to any physical hardware but exists on the Web,” he said. The idea, he said, was to create a home for all of a user’s online files and storage in the form of a virtual PC.

The notion that cloud computing / online web services are not tied to any physical hardware is sadly given undue credence by articles such as this. The semantic confusion here lies in making services and online products run on any (local) OS versus being tied down to run on any one of them. The solution to the bane of the latter can be achieved even on local operating systems using Java, Air, Flash or open source tools. Ubuntu’s growing adoption lies in its ability to give a Windows like user experience at a fraction of the cost associated with Microsoft latest desktop operating avatar, Vista. The potential of the web to transform organisational transactions (within and between organisations) however is not, in any way, linked to online operating systems. While the point is made and true to a degree that cloud services lack a certain standard look at feel (in terms of their UI) that local operating systems have, in terms of market capitalisation I don’t see that’s been a problem for the most successful cloud computing platforms and services to date – Facebook and Myspace, two social networking platforms wholly different to each other probably get more users still in a day that I think G.ho.st would have signed up since its inception!

The writer also fails to compare G.ho.st with dozens of other online operating systems. The impression given here seems to be that G.ho.st is worth highlighting because, inter alia,

  • it has some peripheral connection to an Israeli peacemaker’s family (quote added for good optics)
  • there is a peripheral interest in peacebuilding through the business (no concrete evidence is provided save for some passing anecdotal intent).
  • that it is located in one of the world’s most troubled regions, with the romanticised Israel – Palestine people to people contact (“at a rundown coffee shop on a desert road frequented by camels and Bedouin shepherds near Jericho”) as some vague marker of its potential to foster communal reconciliation

This is at best disingenuous writing and closer to being downright dishonest. A serious writer would have weighed the pros and cons of G.ho.st for what it is – an online operating system – a breed of cloud computing platforms that’s seen a growth spurt over the past 2 years (largely in the US) but which have largely failed to gain market traction because we are all still dependent on the local operating systems that run our desktop PCs, which are the repositories of every single byte of information we upload to YouTube, to Facebook Photos, to Flickr and to podcasts on iTunes.

See reviews of online operating systems here an an even larger selection here – What does G.ho.st offer that these don’t? What does G.ho.st do better that these don’t?

G.ho.st also offers just 5Gb of space. That’s about the size of Microsoft’s SkyDrive. And with new services and technologies from Microsoft itself (in addition to others) making it terribly easy to access your computer / computers from anywhere (and in the future, even from mobiles) the future for G.ho.st & Co. seems very bleak. (This does not even take into account devices such as the XO laptop, Intel’s Classmate and Microsoft’s Flexgo intiative, that with all their failings are based on the essential idea that the importance of local operating systems and local storage will not diminish even with the growth and reach of the web).

I did spend some time on the rather garish looking guest login to G.ho.st. It’s nowhere near as polished as some of the other online operating systems out there, so in this respect, fails to pass muster even when compared to the competition. However, the most egregious oversight is in opening, by default, a document on Zoho written by Zvi Schreiber in November 2006. There are some real tragi-comic assertions in it:

  • The real threat to Windows is that the very concept of a Personal Computer and of a local operating system is being subtly eroded. Microsoft Windows installed locally on the PC is not being beaten by competition but it has started down inevitable path to irrelevance.
  • Over the next two years, find partners to create hosted version of every single Windows program and help users migrate their data to the new world.
  • In the meantime you can use G.ho.st for those services which you must be able to access from everywhere or where the hostered (sic) services are superior, while still using Windows for software which is unavailable or inferior online. Starting in 2 years time you can consider retiring Windows and performing all your computing activities on the Web via G.ho.st.
  • In the West, Windows is affordable but still an annoyance to a young generation who are used to getting e-mail, instant messengers, social networking, news and so much more for free. In the developing world, the price of Windows is a real barrier to the adoption of computing. With the Global Hosted Operating SysTem, the price of an operating system becomes, like the price of looking through shop windows, zero, as it should be.

Windows may be on the “path to irrelevance” but to prophesise its imminent demise even two years after this article was written still puts one in the category of thinkers dealing with substance abuse. Given that it’s nearly two years ago Zvi wrote this, I wonder how far G.ho.st has gone in creating hosted versions of “every single Windows programme”. Sadly the NY Times doesn’t also ask how users are able to migrate their data to the “new world” (smacks of some Biblical Garden of Eden for information in the clouds) with only 5Gb on offer.

It’s unnecessary to belabour the point. G.ho.st simply tries too hard to be taken seriously. Ms. Kraft should know and write better, given her experience in the region’s vexing challenges. It is not as if the region is in the information dark ages – a World Bank report released in January 2008 suggests that comparisons between other countries in the region put the West Bank and Gaza ahead of or on par with usage / ownership / access of PC’s, ICTs and mobiles. So clearly, there’s opportunities to use ICTs to address peacebuilding in this region.

There’s already a lot happening. Blogging’s already hugely influential and growing apace. (How many use, would need to use, know of or would care to use G.ho.st?) The growth of online real time translation (text plus those afforded by services such as vernacular Skype conversations and Skypecasts) suggest very real possibilities for inter and intra communal engagements on issues related to peacebuilding even when they can’t or won’t be seen together. (e.g. هل تتكلم العربيه؟)

Simple questions, amongst others, that should have been asked and observations made – the NY Times has a photo of the G.ho.st office with some laptops. How many do you think store all their data on G.ho.st? How may rely on G.ho.st for their email or just go directly to the online email service provider of their choice? How many surf the web through the G.ho.st web browser (a browser in a browser?!) How many can print a Zoho document created through and hosted on G.ho.st to their local printer?

These aside, there is in this article a criminal oversight of just how difficult peacebuilding can be, with or without ICTs. The fact that everything is hunky-dory in the offices of G.ho.st is possibly because this is a business tethered to making profit with few unlike-minded individuals in it and where coding takes precedence over conflicting histories. This is Ms. Kraft’s fault. G.ho.st’s own is that it fails to see that online operating systems add a layer to cloud computing that’s unnecessary and unwieldy.

I don’t go to and use the cloud to replicate or replace my desktop. I go to it, use it and leverage it to complement what I do with my desktop and to strengthen my advocacy by using services / products / tools / platforms that are hard for repressive regimes to track down, disrupt and shut down. Particularly in the context of unreliable and costly connectivity and dealing with hundreds of megabytes of information generation and dissemination a day, online operating systems just don’t cut it for me and anyone else in a similar context.

G.ho.st may well turn out to be the blanket monicker for the genre for online operating systems still born in to a graveyard of good intentions.

As noted on Download Squad, Glide has launched an updated version of its web-based “operating system.”

“Like its predecessors, Glide OS 3.0 provides users with a desktop-like space within a browser window. You can use Glide’s web-based applications to create Word documents, spreadsheets, or presentations. You can also play music, manage photos and videos, and send and receive email. In other words, you can do many of the same things you’d do with a desktop operating system, but in a web browser.

What sets Glide apart from many of its competitors is that Glide offers a suite of tools that let you synchronize your files with a Windows, Mac, Linux, or Solaris machine. There’s also Glide Sync software for a number of mobile phone models. Free account holders get up to 5GB of web space, and if you need more, you can shell out a few bucks a month for additional storage.

One of the new features in Glide OS 3 is a Glide Group tool that adds social networking features. You can communicate with other Glide users by sending messages or sharing media files.”

WordPress.com goes down – A chink in the “cloud” and how to plan for it

The problem with cloud computing is two fold.

One, the assumption based on the marketing spiel and hype that surrounds it that nothing will ever go wrong with data stored on and accessed via the Internet and web. Two, when something awry does occur, the almost complete inability for cloud services and products to continue functioning with even reduced functionality. Google Gears and Adobe’s AIR may offer some relief, but the WordPress outage for over 2 hours this morning (SL time) was a sobering reminder than reliance on hosted / cloud solution comes at a price – when things go wrong, one is at the complete mercy of the service providers.

CMEV’s blog went down with the WordPress outage. We’ve been getting a fair number of page views on it after yesterday’s interesting elections in the Eastern Province. It was annoying to see that WordPress was down this morning and even more so when the time given for downtime turned out to be a gross misrepresentation of the time it actually took to get WordPress.com up and running again (messages on my account kept saying 21 minutes more, went down to 1 minute and then kept going up to 18 or 19 minutes for around 2 hours!). 

With everyone talking about cloud computing usurping our desktop centric storage / access / dissemination paradigm I really wonder if we’ll hit a stage in which downtime is guaranteed to not occur, or whether it is possible with science to give such a guarantee?

While we wait, some short common sense strategies for redundancy and the preservation of sanity during downtime esp. for ICT4Peace applications:

Diversify media. CMEV also has a Twitter channel that I was able to post updates on the outages to. CMEV also hosted it’s maps with election violence updates on Google Maps. Combined with Twitter, I could have run the updates even without WordPress. I also used Twitterfeed to update the Twitter channel with content from the CMEV blog automatically. I also hosted the podcasts outside WordPress on Internet Archive, giving access to them even when the site was down.

Diversify access. To the extent possible, make sure critical applications aren’t reliant on a single ISP or connection. I used SLT ADSL and SLT 3G HSPA interchangeably over election day to update the CMEV sites with content. 

Backup and mirror. All CMEV sitreps and incident updates were mirrored on the old CPA site.

Email. Plain old email updates work just fine when you want to alert a few key people on new content, who then spread the word in a viral fashion. 

Expect the block and outage. Plan at the outset for the worst case scenario. 

Use RSS. It helps gets the message out. Don’t expect people to come to your website to get the news. 

Don’t be old school and stingy. Full RSS feeds may reduce the number of those who visit your site, but they get the content out in a manner that’s accessible even if the site goes down for a bit. Combined with a service like RSSFwd, can be a powerful way to disseminate content that makes it virtually impossible for Governments to clamp down on (unless they go the route of Myanmar, but that’s it own defense). 

Go mobile. Make your site accessible to mobiles. It pays off. There are a couple of plugins for WordPress that do this if you host the site on your own. Mofuse is a great (free) service is you use a hosted WordPress (or any other blogging) service / site. 

Need to write a book about these strategies in more detail sometime…

The energy consumption of cloud computing

While I’ve written on the potential (and significant limitations) of cloud computing in relation ICT4Peace previously it’s never quite easy to get one’s head around the power consumption of behemoth data centres that actually power the “cloud“.

It’s not just Second Life that consumes more power than an average Brazillian. A single data centre of Google alone (leaving aside those of Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon and other internet giants) can by 2011 can consume about as much as 82,000 homes in the US according to a recent article by Harpers Magazine. The numbers are mind boggling:

“Based on the projected industry standard of 500 watts per square foot in 2011, the Dallas plant can be expected to demand about 103 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 82,000 homes, or a city the size of Tacoma, Washington.”

Though there’s some (semantic) confusion with regard to the actual consumption of power, it’s indubitable that these data centres will collectively consume an incredible amount of energy to keep the cloud as well as the Internet and web growth alive. Harper’s Magazine makes it clear that Google is not above manipulation to get deals on cheap energy – energy that is generated in some countries by fossil fuels. 

And here I thought that cloud computing was environmentally friendly. 

Cloud computing and ICT4Peace

Nicholas Carr’s video, and his book, compel us to think about what computing will look like a few years hence when the slew of new online services from the likes of Adobe, Google, Microsoft and others will to a greater or lesser degree shape the way we create, store, disseminate and archive most of what we usually now have on our PC hard drives, USB sticks or mobile phones.

Even in Sri Lanka, the cloud is growing. Having bought Mobitel’s HSPA modem + connection, I can now work anywhere I Colombo and in many other places around the country with speeds that rival my wired SLT ADSL Business Connection.

WiFi in and around Colombo is growing (even if those who provide wifi access don’t exactly know they are doing it!). Wimax, though hyped, is the wrong technology to use in Colombo but may have an impact in rural areas where large swathes of land can be covered with less of the problems associated with Line of Sight in urban / built up areas.

Mobile phone coverage with GPRS Edge, from Dialog and Mobitel, already covers a great deal of land, with 3G service coverage growing apace.

A lot of this (wireless) connectivity would have been unimaginable a few years ago. What it means is that using PCs and mobile phones, the possibility of connecting to the web and Internet and more importantly, producing content that can be distributed via web media channels, is increasingly open for citizens outside of Colombo and the Western Province.

A few years ago I wrote Mediation from the palm of your hand: Forgining the next generation ODR systems that along with several other papers explored the potential offered for conflict resolution through the increasing footprint of wireless internet access and the growth of mobile devices.

I’m not entirely convinced however by Carr’s assertion that we will find less use for our local hard drives. Local hard drives will only disappear once I can transfer, at the same rate as I can today with my PC’s local storage, information to and from the internet. Broadband internet speeds today even in developed countries don’t even come close. As someone who works with digital media where average file sizes range in hundreds of megabytes, my hourly data transfer (upload + download) needs would outstrip any wired or wireless internet access that I have encountered and know about (that’s commercially available and affordable) in Sri Lanka.

The cloud, seen here as ubiquitous (and hopefully free or very cheap) internet and web access, will certainly complement my work. It already does. Today, for some of the work I do with large Word or PowerPoint docs, I just create an online collaboration space with www.box.net. All the org’s I work with are on Google Apps, which allows for easy exchange of documents amongst colleagues without having to email them around all the time (why the hell doesn’t Google Apps support PDFs?!) I use Flickr and YouTube in my work a lot, and it’s great that I can now access these services from my mobile phone or laptop in most places I go in Sri Lanka and even on the road, along with Gmail and my office mail on my mobile wherever I have a signal.

I’m primarily a web publisher – the stuff I throw up to the web requires high bandwidth to upload, lesser bandwidth to consume, little bandwidth to engage with via comments and emails. I’m still unable to really use services like Yahoo’s new video streaming service, or U.Stream, still unable to do, reliably, things like Skypecasts and still unable to do anything that Apple says I can do with iChat video and screen sharing on my Mac – because the sustained bandwidth I need, just ain’t there.

That’s the problem with Carr’s thesis.

He assumes that the growth in broadband access speeds, that underpins his vision reminiscent of Sun’s assertion that the network is the computer, will take place around the world at more or less the same pace and in the same manner. Even a cursory glance at broadband services in the US tells us that this is very far removed from reality (though I suspect things may be different in Nordic countries).

For us in Sri Lanka, the growth of hyped up wireless broadband access holds much promise, but it will take years to mature. That said, as a peacebuilder, I’m excited today by the potential such technologies hold to get communities and individuals that rarely participate in democratic debates and produce digital content of their own to enter into the world of the Internet and web we take for granted. From oral histories to digital diaries (an SMS a day with a photo telling the life of an IDP in a camp), from podcasts in the vernacular (e.g. VOR Radio) to citizen journalism (e.g. Vikalpa), from mobile phone videos uploaded from the field itself (e.g. Vikalpa Video) to text messages that inform and alert (e.g. JNW), the cloud holds tremendous potential for those of us interested in interrogating war and peace.

It is in fact a shift (a necessary and long over due one at that) from an emphasis on e-government (all too often seen as and constructed as a one way street that really doesn’t offer citizens the potential to communicate with Government) to e-governance – holding government and public bodies, including NGOs, accountable and transparent.

I think Carr will eventually be proved right – we will all end up storing more and more of our lives online. But until such time this is possible and prevalent, local storage will still be hugely important and will only continue to grow in size – as our own digital content creation grows exponentially.

Put the two together – higher density data storage on smaller media and higher speed connectivity over larger footprints, and you have the recipe for a communications architecture that can be leveraged for peacebuilding in any number of ways.