Trouble seeing through The Cloud

A year and a half ago I wrote about my desire to self-host in Your Own Personal Cloud. Terry Madley got me wanting to write about this again when I saw his trackback when he reblogged my original post. I think we started on some interesting discussion. The Cloud is even more pervasive now. I admit, in many aspects of my digital life, I have been engulfed. Where to even begin?

Media

There are aspects of The Cloud where I gladly must wave a white flag of surrender. Mainly in the realm of media. It simply makes no sense at the moment to host video on one’s own web host. If this era of the web is all about User Experience, slow media consumption is simply unacceptable. I don’t do much video so this is one area where I simply don’t care. But I do lots of audio/music. I’ve been won over by SoundCloud. It does limit the amount of audio I can store unless I subscribe, but by keeping things lean I get to all the benefits/speed of The Cloud for free. This feeling of Cloud benevolence does not exactly extend to images. That’s a nice segway to a minor triumph over The Cloud.

Flickr Defection

Flickr. What comes to mind? A dying web brand? For me, it means my content being held hostage in The Cloud. Flickr WAS great. Unfortunately it appears to be in (slow) decline. This is a great lesson in what can happen when you outsource responsibility for your content. My wife has taken thousands of amazing pictures from our travels around the globe. Well, due to our being a bit transient, we nearly forgot to pay the premium Flickr bill one year. That was a close call. We would have lost all that data, tagging and hours of time poured into cataloging of our travel photos. The revelation for me was that if Flickr was going to be a crap social network, it really has very little reason to exist. Why not just self-host all these photos like we should have in the first place?

Without the phenomenal obfuscation layer of the Flickr interface, what are we trying to do here? Simply put our photos on the web in an easy way to view. WordPress is great at this. It’s even better with their Jetpack plugin which can do exactly what Flickr does: show what camera the photo was taken on, photo captions and most impressively serve up different photo sizes based on what device you’re viewing the photo on. Something new that Jetpack does is allow you to cache images on WordPress.com servers. I don’t know why they’re not charging for this but I’m thankful they’re not. This means you get great image load speed despite being on a regular host.

So that’s all great if I were starting from day one and had never posted any images to Flickr. Unfortunately we’re years into this with thousands of images locked up in Flickr. A very, very good soul, Bradt, has created a plugin for WordPress, Flickr to WP, that makes migrating from Flickr to WordPress delightfully easy. It’s scandalous that it only has 736 downloads. I would put this in my top 5 WordPress plugins of all time. So I tried it. And it worked like a dream. I got all the photos, captions, sets and photo camera slugs. Unbelievable. It remains to be seen what we’ll do next. Being designers, we need to put creative care into the site these photos now live on so it may be awhile before its ready to show.

Whatever happened to software?

I’m a designer. I use lots of software to do my work with. Suddenly there are a slew of essential apps that can only be utilized via The Cloud. A few are BrowserStack (for proofing websites on all browsers via real computers remotely) and InvisionApp (for sharing design prototypes with clients and collecting feedback). These are amazing uses of The Cloud. There’s more out there that is very tempting. Interestingly, Adobe Creative Cloud Suite are not true Cloud apps, however the pricing method is. This brings me to a gripe.

The more software goes Cloud the more our personal finances bleed out, little by little, every month. Every great Cloud app or service is a monthly fee. It’s a genius pricing model actually.  They have found a way to lock in customers indefinitely.

Here’s one of my replies to Terry Madley which sums up my feelings on this matter:

I’ve been meaning to write about something regarding Cloud backlash. In the earlier days of personal computers and the web the financial model was very much centered on ownership. Now everything cloud is subscription based. It’s actually a much better business model because businesses never lose touch with the consumer. But the downside for consumers is this compounding of cloud services…things we need…but like you said, things that are for the most part disconnected from each other. And to my original personal cloud point…there is lost accountability. The more cloud services you have the more diluted and less organized and less responsible for your own data you become—not to mention the bleeding of one’s personal finance in daily expenses (this particularly hits home for me…i can’t not subscribe to certain things for work…but they are adding up tremendously). At least if the Personal Cloud remains viable enough costs are magnificently contained. 1 hosting bill and WordPress = free. And thankfully most premium WordPress plugins are not sold as subscriptions. You buy it, you own it. Hopefully that remains although subscription seems more lucrative over the long haul.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a love/hate thing when it comes to Cloud Apps. I just can’t subscribe to them all. It’s the same reason I love Rdio and hate iTunes. I simply can’t buy all the songs I listen to. But on Rdio, at least I can listen to them! (Or maybe that’s a bad point because I’m paying good Cloud subscription money for the Rdio privilege—but undoubtably less than I would on iTunes for much less music consumption.) Perhaps, as the world of web apps gets more compounded, there needs to be some kind of aggregate which gives one access to lots of software instead of me bleeding out money every which way. I love BrowserStack but I only use it maybe once a month during that phase of a project. Is it really worth the $20/mo to me? Maybe it is for now. When IE in all its forms finally dies it’s final death or is sued out of existence in a class action lawsuit by legions of designers and developers who will never get their precious time back…whoops, I digress. But anyway, when all that happens I won’t need BrowserStack as much anymore. Yes, Adobe Creative Cloud could be one primitive incarnation of this cloud software pricing model. Even though it’s more money than I’m comfortable paying out a month, unlimited access to all Adobe Software for $50/mo was ultimately too irresistible. But you see how that happened? One simply ends up giving in to The Cloud—because it’s just easier.

Good Cloud bad Cloud

To conclude, I suppose it’s all about discernment. Some of this Cloud stuff is good, some of it is necessary, some of it nice and some of it sucks. A good use of The Cloud is distributed media (Netflix, Rdio, Spotify). I’m a huge advocate of streaming because the consumer actually does get more for their money and it reduces the cultural desire for pirated media. Necessary is of course my spiel on web apps. Nice is perhaps services like SoundCloud and YouTube. I don’t know if I made a great case that those are irreplaceable. But they do provide a better user experience to consumers of one’s content. And bad…obviously Flickr. But here’s the thing, Flickr was/is huge. Just like Myspace and Friendster at one time. We entrust precious things to these nebulous Cloud entities. But can you really trust that they’re still going to be there years from now? If you self-host, the organizational and control equation gets a lot simpler. The reality is you’re going to bleed money in this internet world. But perhaps a better investment is in a good personal host over the long haul.

The unavoidable cloud (a ramble)

I’d written a post nearly a year ago about a mistrust I had of the cloud. By sprinkling one’s data across various provider’s cloud networks it breeds a lack of responsibility for one’s data. It makes it disposable (some argue this is good, why hold on to crap?). I still believe this to be true. Yet I’m beginning to think collecting all of one’s personal data on a private server may be an impossible ideal. It’s quite simple (and was indeed this simple to me when I’d written the original post). The servers that can actually power all your media reliably indefinitely are very expensive. The only media that you can reliably keep on a dedicated server that can be consumed comfortably is static (img, pdf and of course text).

The experience of listening to audio or video on a slow server is nearly intolerable. There’s a very high chance you’re going to give up. Media cloud servers like Amazon’s are great but I find it rather annoying to upload media through their tedious interface. I’d rather just do that in the comfort of my WordPress. Amazon is a pay per usage model. I’ve done this a few times and those nickels rack up pretty fast.

Enter the free cloud. YouTube beckons us. And SoundCloud gives us a taste for audio in the cloud (there is a ceiling on what you get for free). Now we’ve got Instagram hosting our photos (free). All these cloud services are social and often fun.

Guess what’s happening to me? Fragmentation. I started this blog to collect my online parts. Yet I remain pulled in a million directions. At least my text lives on my own database for which I am solely responsible for (as long as the hosting provider doesn’t drop the ball). Look at my widgets though. Most are just aggregators (with the exception of Twitter which I actually do archive to this site thanks to the wonderful HL Twitter plugin). I would like a plugin that could pull in my Instagrams directly into post formats on this site. The same for Last.fm data. I don’t develop these types of apps but the fact that it’s so difficult to get a proper RSS for Instagram or see a live XML of Last.fm scrobbles suggests to me that they just don’t want me to pull the data for myself. Why would they? These cloud applications provide amazing utility. More than we can hope for in the form of open source apps in many cases (at least for now).

But let me provide an example of what could happen to your precious media and data when you choose the cloud. We only need to look to Flickr. Do you still use Flickr as a social tool? I don’t. But for awhile it was a very convenient repository for images. Mainly because it had a good application for categorizing, tagging and distributing images. This made sense for our travel blog which we started at the end of 2008. Flickr hasn’t changed since that time. It’s not cheap either. The allure of Flickr slideshows is completely gone because the embeddable ones are Flash and thus completely useless on mobile devices. We have thousands of pictures nicely organized on Flickr. I believe I’ve found a WordPress plugin that can allow me to download my photos and regain the keys to the online display of our travel photos. But this is work. This is the cost when you invest your time, trust and data into the cloud. When it’s time to move you have quite a chore on your hands.

I don’t do much video these days. I think for video this existential problem becomes more palpable. You pretty much have to use YouTube or Vimeo so your videos will play smoothly. But if you just read my Flickr conundrum you may find the same issues when you’ve accumulated a wealth of data and  you’d like to move it. This is why in the long-run I think I’m much better off hosting it all, even the difficult media.

These days this is increasingly difficult. My tiny website can’t hope to run as fast as YouTube, Facebook or any of the others. It also seems redundant to keep a cloud copy and manually maintain personal copies of media. This is why I hope for more applications that utilize cloud app APIs which can auto-archive that difficult media back to my own site. This way you get all the speedy goodness of the cloud without being beholden to services when they become mediocre (Flickr).