Cloud computing and the MacBook Air – does this design by ...

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White Paper:

The MacBook Air’s Connection to the Future of Cloud Computing

Jennifer Noble

INF 385P

Professor Randolph Bias

March 6, 2008

Imagine a world where information is always accessible

music, movies,
documents, and pres
entations are all stored online in remote servers. Sharing these items
with collaborators does not require the need to email individual files or track multiple
versions of documents. Vast collections of servers can store massive amounts of data
without a c
ompany needing to buy a single supercomputer… and every bit of information
is available all the time through ultra
portable devices with high speed Internet
connections. Welcome to the world of cloud computing; big players like Amazon,
Google, and Apple wa
nt to transform the cloud from a trendy catchphrase to reality. But
will both consumers and companies want to shift into a fundamentally different way of
computing? Does the ease of shared resources overshadow the possible privacy issues
involved? And how
can cloud computing enhance the usability of everyday tasks for the

Like its meteorological namesake, this “cloud” of computers can seem a little
fuzzy at the edges. No single definition for cloud computing has been standardized; every
major com
pany invested in the development of this type of technology focuses on
different aspects of the “cloud.” Some see cloud computing manifested in web
applications while others see the cloud as a form of utility computing that processes vast
amounts of
data. Another group thinks the cloud is akin to parallel computing; this
approach divides large problems into smaller ones that are processed concurrently (Weiss
18). Regardless of the particular definition one chooses, a single theme seems to repeat
in the discussion of cloud computing;
one can access more resources with less hassle.

Distinguishing a “cloud” from a grouping of machines is tricky; clouds require a
higher level of interoperability than a standard network. As a result, computer engineers

are focusing efforts on creating a “data center” operating system that replaces the
independent machines running its own copy of an OS. Essentially, this “CloudOS” can
manage the resources of an entire cluster of computers more cohesively than ever before

(20). This “omniscient” operating system relies on networking channels to emulate the
operations of a single physical machine. In terms of usability, this can eliminate a whole
spectrum of possible problems arising from the individual installations of an
system. The cloud can avoid the inconsistencies of multiple installations of an operating
system; instead,
adopted standards can increase the ability of a user to trouble
shoot and
manage the resources of the entire cloud. A single interface repl
aces the possible
confusion of multiple instances, reducing the possibility of human error in administration
or diagnostics.

None of this comes cheap; these server clouds require immense amounts of power
for both running and cooling the machines. Both Goo
gle and Amazon have built these
data centers in the Pacific Northwest and Canada where hydroelectric plants provide
cheaper (and greener) power. Other companies are looking at building data centers in
China, the home of a rapidly expanding number of power
plants (Weiss 19). The
possibilities for profit are yet unexplored, but the market is there. Most companies rely on
house data centers to use at will, but there are significant costs associated with the
development and maintenance of such facilities. Th
ese include real estate, hardware,
power, cooling, and upkeep of hardware. The threat of disasters necessitates back
redundancy, and overpowered servers. Google, IBM, and Amazon have spent countless
dollars on innovating their own large
scale data cent
ers. For these companies, a logical
extension of this investment would be to create a business model to support third party

So, what is currently being offered in terms of cloud computing? Amazon’s
Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2, Beta program provid
es access to a “cloud” of computer
servers, offering consumers, educators, and businesses immediate access to this type of
technology. Amazon introduced this service in late 2007, and it has already seen a good
bit of success. EC2 is perfect for data crunc
hing, filling a gap between desktops and
supercomputers. Now software programs can use these linked computers to scan huge
data sets, such as the contents of system
wide email programs, social networks, and
Wikipedia. The cloud can also launch additional m
achine instances of Web applications
if traffic spikes, preventing downtime within these massive programs. Amazon’s EC2 has
a pay
go model, charging about fifteen cents to store a gigabyte of data for a
month or ten cents an hour for processing time
. Google and IBM have taken a different
route to promote cloud computing; they will offer free use of a cluster of computers to the
computer science departments of top American research universities (Hand 963). These
companies encourage the use cloud compu
ting for one simple reason: they have to have
someone to hire. To be valuable Google employees in the future, computer science
students of today need to learn how to write software that uses the interlinked computers
to work in a parallel fashion. By offer
ing these students the resources to learn how to
accomplish these tasks, Google and IBM are ensuring themselves of a future workforce.

Another intriguing aspect of the cloud computing world is the idea of software as
service. By moving all of the processi
ng power to an external server, one could walk
around with just a portable input device. This framework is already in place today; the
Web offers a multitude of applications that replace software. For many people, they only
use Web
based email systems. The

development of Google Documents provides a free
alternative to pricy word processing programs

and Google has also introduced
spreadsheet and presentation software to challenge that market of software programs.
Microsoft has taken note; they have started

to develop their own “cloud” to future
their business model. Even Adobe has created Web versions of Photoshop and Premiere
in order to appeal to this new type of user. The idea of cloud computing represents a
paradigm shift for the consumer. Instead

of choosing option
laden machines, one can
now consider efficient, uncomplicated devices. With PDAs, cell phones, and ultra
portable devices like the iPod Touch providing nearly constant Web access… why not?

With the splashy launch of the MacBook Air, Ap
ple introduced the first public
test of the viability and usability of cloud computing (Rubel). Apple sees this future as a
more immediate prospect. Cloud computing has moved out of the realm of science
fiction, so Apple has already started manufacturing t
he devices that can access these vast
networks. At CES (Consumer Electronics Show) 2008, Bill Gates gave a speech about
the future of cloud computing; the next week, Steve Jobs introduces an ultra portable
laptop that aims to bring this nebulous concept to

the masses. The design of the computer
is striking; while not the thinnest laptop nor the lightest laptop in the world, it is elegant.
It feels like a solid piece of metal. Its size doesn’t force a user to compromise all luxuries
of a larger laptop. A glo
ssy 13.3 inch LCD screen, a full
size keyboard , and a heralded
touch trackpad make the MacBook Air feel similar to other Apple products. The
trackpad should be noted as a gem of usable design; essentially the same as the interface
of the iPhone, the

user can squeeze, expand, and rotate with intuitive gestures. The
learning curve for the trackpad is quite small; even the most technological unsavvy
person can pick up the mannerisms quickly.

The main focus of the MacBook Air is to bring portability to
the masses. Its size
is neglible. Television advertisement shows the computer fitting into a manila envelope.
One reviewer even noted that he thought his backpack was empty, despite the MacBook
Air and all of its accessories contained within his bag (Venez
ia 3). In no way does this
computer feel like a desktop replacement; Apple designed it without an optical drive.
Instead, Apple expects users to install programs through downloading or through a
special remote program that accesses other computers, both Wi
ndows and Apple. The
same thought process is behind the inclusion of only one USB port. The hard drive is also
quite small; an even smaller solid
state version is offered for another thousand dollars.
The computer does not even offer a typical Ethernet con

an adaptor can be
plugged into the single USB port. All of these factors offer challenges in terms of a
consumer’s typical use patterns, especially if one likes to use an external mouse or stores
information on DVDs or flash drives or uses a wire
d connection … and wants to utilize
all at the same time. The design of the MacBook Air commits to the principles of cloud
computing, forcing the user to change his behavior. In terms of usability, this is a definite
drawback to this product. The design is

flawed, but both its physical beauty and its
commitment to the idea of cloud computing still attracts admirers.

Does this design by Apple mark the beginning of consumer acceptance of the idea
of cloud computing? Perhaps. Sales have been brisk, but far fro
m mind
blowing. Small
segments of the population seem to agree to these limitations, especially frequent
business travelers. But for the price, it seems difficult for the general public to make the
switch over to a wholly cloud computing model. Privacy con
cerns, especially regarding
the need for wireless security, is also troubling. Cloud computing expects one to store and
process vast amounts of information on third party servers. The possibility of that data
being hacked, stolen, or sold makes one wonder
about the safety of this system (Pollette
3). Both the current implementation of cloud computing and the devices built around it
need refinement in order to increase its usability and viability for the future.

Works Cited

Hand, Eric. “Head in the Clouds.

Nature. 25;449 (2007 Oct).

Pollette, Chris. “How the Google
Apple Cloud Computer Will Work.”

2 Mar. 2008 <http:

Rubel, Steve. “
The MacBook Air is the Biggest Test Yet for

Cloud Computing.”
2 Mar. 2008 <

Venezia, Paul. “Product review: MacBook Air is light as, well, air.”

11, 2008): NA.
General OneFile
. Gale. University of Texa
s at Austin. 2 Mar.
2008 <>.

Weiss, Aaron. Computing in the clouds.

11, 4 (Dec. 2007), 16