September 19, 2012, 10:10 AM — "A new national survey by Wakefield Research, commissioned by Citrix, showed that most respondents believe the cloud is related to weather, while some referred to pillows, drugs and toilet paper. Those in the know claim working from home in their 'birthday suit' is the cloud’s greatest advantage. The good news is that even those that don’t know exactly what the cloud is recognize its economic benefits and think the cloud is a catalyst for small business growth."
That was the first paragraph (known in the news biz as a lede) of a Citrix press release that popped into my inbox last month. It's a good lede; gets to the point, and (all-too-rare for a corporate release) doesn't describe the company in question as the number one company in the solar system based on some stats some half-drunk guy in Marketing once spouted off at the last office party in a desperate attempt to impress his co-workers and possibly get a date.
Even though it was a good introduction to a possibly interesting story, at the time I decided to file it away. There's didn't seem to be much to it, other than some funny-ish factoids that almost fall into the "let's make fun of the muggles" category.
Like this tidbit: "When asked what 'the cloud' is, a majority responded it’s either an actual cloud (specifically a 'fluffy white thing'), the sky or something related to the weather (29 percent). Only 16 percent said they think of a computer network to store, access and share data from Internet-connected devices.
Hahaha… look at all the normal people bump into things and look confused.
Still, I was circling this story warily, mentally poking it with a stick, trying to figure out what important thing could be gleaned from it. Something was bothering me about it.
And then it hit me.
The reason why this was churning away in the dark recesses in my brain was that this whole situation of the cloud reminded my of the similar problem faced by Linux advocates when their favorite operating system was young. Back then, no one knew what the heck Linux was, either, and it drove people crazy.
I don't recall any national surveys asking what Linux was (but if there were, it wouldn't surprise me), but I do remember IBM's Linux ad televised at the Super Bowl and other efforts to bring Linux into the mind's eye.
Here's the thing: I don't really think that those efforts made a bit of difference. Yes, Linux is very pervasive in IT circles, a powerful force that dominates across many tech sectors. But ask the person on the street what Linux is, you might get "something about computers?" but more likely you will get a blank stare.
But at the end of it all, does it really matter what people think Linux is? They use it all of the time, every time they point the remote at their DVRs, or make a call on their Android phone, or surf on the Internet. It's still there, still making the world go 'round.
The same argument can almost be applied to the notion of cloud computing. Sure, it would be great if more people knew what cloud computing was, just as it would be pretty cool if Tux were the universal symbol of IT awesomeness. But for the general public, who reap the benefits of technology every day without really understanding it, does it matter?
I can tell you how a microwave oven works, right down to the optics of the microwaves. I have a degree in physics, so that's how I roll. But ask me to make paper, and I can only give you a bare-bones idea of how that's done. Ask me to create origami with that paper, and I am clueless.
There is one caveat to not-knowing about the cloud: I think, more than anything else, people should at least understand the circumstances under which their data is being held. If people don't understand the cloud, then they probably don't get the fact that their data is being stored elsewhere than their phone, tablet, or PC. That is something that really needs a lot more public attention.
You don't have to launch into a full-blown explanation of the cloud. Nearly everyone understands that you don't leave a metal spoon in the microwave even if they don't understand how a microwave oven works. But data security and privacy are too important for people to not understand.
Cloud computing is cool, as Linux is, and big data, and quantum computing… the list will continue to go on. But understanding it may not ever be a public priority.
And that's cool, too.
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