Cloud or Fog? The battle for supremacy in the cloud is not a dogfight but will be fought in the trenches.

CLOUD OR FOG?

I have long been a fan of John Carpenter’s horror movies – and the Fog is a memorable one. You can see a preview above. If you have not seen it, the Fog is about a mist which slowly envelops a seaside village bringing with it ghosts of long dead sailors. The ghosts have a trademark metallic knock on the door (when you hear the knock, you know that they have come to get you!)

Cloud computing is slowly beginning to sound like the Fog.

That metallic knock on the door may be the Cloud vendors coming to get your business.

We saw this with Amazon with Amazon encroaching on the print on demand vendors like Lightning source

And last week, it was the Open source Mozilla browser folk who woke up to a metallic knock on their door in the middle of the night when we all heard the surprise announcement that Google wanted to be in the browser business with launch of the Chrome browser

Google had long supported the Mozilla browser. So, what happens to Mozilla now that Chrome is out? And more importantly, why did Google get into the browser business in the first place?

I believe that this is more than the aesthetics of the browser. Nor is it about the relative speed, standards conformance etc about browsers. The Chrome announcement relates more to Cloud computing – a topic I have been thinking of for a while now (and a looong blog coming soon).

WHOSE CLOUD DO YOU ORBITt?

If you compare Chrome to another browser, you are missing the point. In fact Chrome is less of a browser and borrows elements from the operating system in terms of its architecture.

Sam Johnston says this very eloquently in Google Chrome: Cloud Operating Environment .

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Chrome introduces a revolutionary new software architecture, based on components from other open source software, including WebKit and Mozilla, and is aimed at improving stability, speed and security, with a simple and efficient user interface.

The first intelligent thing Chrome does is split each task into a separate process (‘sandbox’), thus delegating to the operating system which has been very good at process isolation since we introduced things like pre-emptive multitasking and memory protection. This exacts a fixed per-process resource cost but avoids memory fragmentation issues that plague long-running browsers. Every web site gets its own tab complete with its own process and WebKit rendering engine, which (following the principle of least privilege) runs with very low privileges. If anything goes wrong the process is quietly killed and you get a sad mac style sad tab icon rather than an error reporting dialog for the entire browser.

Chrome enforces a simple computer security model whereby there are two levels of multilevel security (user and sandbox) and the sandbox can only respond to communication requests initiated by the user. Plugins like Flash which often need to run at or above the security level of the browser itself are also sandboxed in their own relatively privileged processes. This simple, elegant combination of compartments and multilevel security is a huge improvement over the status quo, and it promises to further improve as plugins are replaced by standards (eg HTML 5 which promises to displace some plugins by introducing browser-native video) and/or modified to work with restricted permissions. There are also (publicly accessible) blacklists for warning users about phishing and malware and an “Incognito” private browsing mode.

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But as Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner points out .. “the focus is on keeping different processes for different windows – that’s a very heavy duty thing to do. It’s an OS approach rather than a browser approach.” And something not considered worth following.

Jon is correct of course …

Let us not forget that Google already had Gears as an offline component. There was increasing support from the industry and from browser vendors like Opera for Gears. So why seek to totally dominate the (universal) client i.e. the browser as we know it?

The reason is simple ..

It’s because the cloud is fragmenting whether we like it or not.

Amazon S3, EC2; Google AppEngine, Facebook and Salesforce.com are not interoperable and are not likely to be as well. Differentiation will be based on service (cloud i.e. serverside) but ALSO on the client.

Google simply could NOT afford to leave a critical part of the user experience i.e. the client out of it’s control.

It is as simple as that.

So, what is missing? Again, as Sam Johnston says in the same article .. – just add Linux

Just add Linux and cloud storage and you’ve got a full blown Cloud Operating System (“CloudOS”)

What is perhaps most interesting though (at least from a cloud computing point of view) is the full-frontal assault on traditional operating system functions like process management (with a task manager that allows users to “see what sites are using the most memory, downloading the most bytes and abusing (their) CPU”). Chrome is effectively a Cloud Operating Environment for any (supported) operating system in the same way that early releases of Windows were GUIs for DOS. All we need to do now is load it on to a (free) operating system like Linux and wire it up to cloud storage (ala Mozilla Weave) for preferences (eg bookmarks, history) and user files (eg uploads, downloads) and we have a full blown Cloud Operating System!

Ironically, it validates Ray Ozzie’s strategy for Windows live services where he essentially redefines the SAAS paradigm to Software plus service – in effect incorporating the role of a client for the cloud.

The Google Chrome announcement is a tacit admission of the need for a client for the cloud

INTERESTING MOVE – BUT STILL SOME QUESTION MARKS ABOUT THE U TURN

With a mobile hat on .. For a company that does no evil and has been historically developer friendly; I must admit I was a bit disappointed in this U turn. I have been pro-Google overall however .. essentially .. Google was telling us that we should develop for webkit but at the same time was working on a product that was changing the architecture in a big way.

What does this mean for Android and indeed for timeframes of Android?

If Webkit relevant anymore – or not?

Google still has many challenges to address before it wins in the mobile space(the radio layer integration for one). We don’t need more ambiguity with Android and certainly don’t need major U turns.

IMPLICATIONS FOR MOBILE

And what does this mean for mobile?

We need a simple, universal thin client that integrates with Internet based services and with a small footprint. I had always believed that browsers with offline browsing mechanisms like Gears could be as close to a universal client as we can get. Now it seems; apparently not.

If we are now going to talk of a weird hybrid of a browser and an operating system (an ‘Owser’?) – then all hell breaks loose and old paradigms do not apply as I said at beginning of this blog – you cannot compare a browser to Chrome

Sergey Brin has already said that Chrome may well be the Brower for Android . This fits in well since the Linux component already exists(and consequently the components to make the Owser exist)

But the real question is: Who ELSE can provide a universal cloud client for the mobile device?

We can now agree that a client is needed (with architectures from both Google and Microsoft heading in that direction). We discussed this question at Mobile Web Megatrends and there were some interesting possibilities. These include Nokia (who could also now merge the browser (webkit) and the Operating system(Symbian) through open source(which is conceptually the same strategy as Chrome . But from an Operator standpoint – the talk by Gemalto offered a very interesting solution as well with the SIM / SCWS being the universal client for the cloud managed by the Operator.

CONCLUSIONS

To conclude, the cloud is already fragmented. And the battle for supremacy of the cloud may well not be a grand dogfight in the clouds like the Red Baron aka Baron Manfred von Richthofen fought in the skies but also a protracted ground battle (client side battle) fought in the trenches .

The boundaries between online and offline applications were already getting blurred with features like Gears and now to make matters interesting(or worse depending on your standpoint) – boundaries between browsers and operating systems themselves are blurring.

And this, to me, is highly disruptive .

Expect many more industries to be disrupted and many more such knocks on the door.

As usual, comments and feedback welcome.

Note re references to World War One history: I am not that old :) but I do like history and given more time would read a lot more of it!