The Desktop or the Cloud?

A growing number of people are migrating much of their computing work from the desktop to the cloud, including myself. Why? What exactly is the cloud? What’s it like to work in the cloud? What are the pros and cons of the cloud? Who should consider (or not) migrating much of their work to the cloud?

Software resides on a server . . . in the cloud

Software on a server . . . in the cloud

This post is an attempt to answer these questions from a balanced perspective.

Here is how I describe desktop versus cloud computing for the purposes of this post:

Desktop Computing is the use of desktop software to create, edit, and store data on your hard drive. The operating system is the primary interface through which you access the software that works with your data.

Cloud Computing is the use of web services to create, edit, and store data on servers located elsewhere. The browser is the primary interface through which you access the various software services that work with your data.

Software on a hard drive . . . on your desktop computer

Software on a hard drive . . . on your desktop computer

I realize that there are a variety of definitions for cloud computing. The above definition makes sense in the context of typical users getting work done on a computer, which is what this post is all about—both an introduction and a reference for individuals and small businesses considering migrating work from the desktop to the cloud.

A Typical Morning in the Cloud

6:00 Wake up. My Blackberry shows 3 e-mails in my Gmail inbox. I read and archive one message, leaving the others for later.

6:13 Start home computer, then Firefox, which automatically opens my most frequently used web pages into 7 tabs. Enter my Roboform master password, then open Gmail.

6:15 From the Gmail Inbox page:

  1. I quickly read and archive my 2 unread messages
  2. I glance at the following for today and tomorrow:
    • To Do list (Remember the Milk Firefox add-on)
    • Calendar (Gmail gadget shows my Google Calendar)
    • Weather (part of my Google Calendar)
  3. I add an idea to my web security draft article (Click on “web security” document listed under the Gmail Docs gadget, type in idea, close/save it)

6:25 Check financial news on a number of stocks I either own or am tracking, using the finance sites for Yahoo! and Google.

6:45 Go to the Google Reader tab. Scan titles of 43 unread items. Read three of them. I don’t want to read the other 40, so I click “Mark all as Read.”

7:00 Eat Breakfast.

7:15 Check news, e-mail, Google Reader, etc. one last time then shut down computer and bike to the office.

7:25 Start office computer, then Firefox.

7:30 Open my incomplete web security article (from Google Docs gadget in Gmail). F11 and Control-Shift-F to completely block out distractions while I’m writing.

9:00 I stop writing, and check Gmail. 2 new messages:

  1. Transcript of Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting. I want to read it later. So I “star” the e-mail, which makes it into a (Remember the Milk) To Do item that links back to the e-mail. I set the due date to Friday, then archive the message to keep my inbox clear.
  2. Jim’s reply. This is part of a “conversation” that Gmail automatically grouped together, so I choose “expand all” to see the context. We’ve been going back and forth about a FilterJoe site bug. Jim isolated the issue with this last e-mail. So . . .

9:05 I log in to FilterJoe. I make the needed change, do some testing, and find that the problem is resolved.

9:20 Back to Gmail: I thank Jim and tell him the issue is resolved. I then click on the “send and archive” button, which sends the reply, archives it, then returns me to the inbox.

9:25 I spend time researching Internet security. I clip several web posts into Evernote. I also type my own notes directly into Evernote.

10:00 I turn off my office computer and go to a Doctor’s appointment, taking along my Blackberry and EEE PC netbook.

10:05 While riding BART, I read a message on my Blackberry from my father-in-law requesting flight times for a ticket I purchased a few months ago. So I type Southwest into Gmail on the Blackberry. The second e-mail listed is the Southwest itinerary, which I forward to him.

10:45 I arrive on time, but have to wait half an hour. I continue working right where I left off, using my EEE PC netbook. My Internet connection is slow because it uses Bluetooth tethering (the Blackberry acts as a modem, and accesses the Internet through T-mobile’s EDGE network). But it’s good enough for Gmail, Google Reader, and Google News.

Comments about my cloud use

  1. I routinely access my data from 2-4 devices per day.  Storing data on the cloud makes this easy. The Dropbox service makes syncing desktop data just as easy.
  2. Gmail has replaced MS Outlook as my coordination center: e-mail, contacts, calendar, and tasks. It also links to documents I’m currently working on.
  3. I still use desktop software. Quicken and Excel are examples of desktop software I much prefer over competing web services.
  4. Evernote is an example of an app that is a combination of both desktop software and a web service. The desktop software is faster and more flexible, but the web service seamlessly syncs data so that I can access and add to my notes from anywhere.
  5. With Evernote, I capture, sync, and find notes I take from any of my computers or smartphones. I prefer using its desktop client, for two reasons:
    • I want a separate window open for note taking as I’m reading.
    • I want to access and add to notes while offline.
  6. Before Evernote, I used Google Notebook.  Google ended support for this product, but Google and Evernote made it easy to transfer my data from Google Notebook to Evernote.
  7. The title “The Desktop or the Cloud?” implies using one or the other. In reality, you can pick and choose which apps you prefer on the desktop, which on the cloud, and which a hybrid of the two.
  8. On the other hand, some benefits of cloud computing happen only if most of your work is on the cloud. I personally experienced reduced computer maintenance time and lower hardware requirements after I replaced MS Outlook with Gmail as my starting point for work.
  9. Evaluating and managing each individual cloud service can be time consuming. Life in the cloud is simpler if you use either Google or Zoho as your main service provider, as both of these options cover most of the typical productivity apps.  Thinkfree and Zimbra also cover multiple apps, though not as many.
  10. I rarely see the desktop interface. I like Windows XP because it is well supported and doesn’t force me to waste time and money on “upgrades.”

The Pros of Cloud Use

  1. Data accessible from anywhere
    • Web apps are easily accessible from any computer
    • Web apps are accessible from smart phones (iPhone, Blackberry, etc.)
    • Web apps can run on any operating system that supports a modern browser (platform independent)
    • Regular desktop apps require complex and expensive solutions such as MS Exchange Server to attain a similar level of accessibility
  2. Software upgrades are frequent yet effortless
    • Desktop software requires time and sometimes money to upgrade
    • Web apps get frequent updates, upgrades, and feature additions, usually with no money or time spent by users
    • Cloud users still need to keep upgrading and updating the browser (and its add-ons) when prompted to do so
    • Cloud users must also keep updating (but not upgrading) the operating system in order to stay secure
    • But that’s it—web apps get updated on servers, not your computer
  3. Maintaining a computer’s operating system requires less time and effort
    • The more work you move to the cloud, the less time and effort you need to maintain your computer system’s well being
    • If you move everything to the cloud, your computer will essentially play the role of a “dumb terminal” (Back in the 1970s, the primary way computers were accessed were through zero-maintenance dumb terminals that accessed remote computers elsewhere)
    • Customizing your interface still requires tinkering, but with browser settings and add-ons
    • It is far faster and easier to reinstall a browser with add-ons (less than 1 hour) than it is to reinstall an operating system and all the software on a computer (3-12 hours)—so messing up your browser impacts you less than messing up your operating system
  4. Computer and operating system upgrades are less frequent
    • Upgrading or buying new computers and/or operating systems takes time, money, expertise, and aggravation
    • Cloud users are never forced to upgrade due to speed or compatibility issues, though hardware failure still forces repair or replacement of computers
    • Windows or Linux computers purchased after 1998 or Macs purchased after 2001 can easily run web services on a modern browser
  5. Less expensive hardware
    • Standard computer buying advice: buy at least a mid-range system, so that your system doesn’t get obsoleted too soon by upgrades to the operating system or other software
    • Cloud computer buying advice: buy the cheapest computer that meets your current needs—and you’ll notice that using it for web services gets faster after each browser upgrade
    • Cheap and supposedly underpowered netbooks like my EEE PC 1000H run web services at speeds which are not noticeably different than high powered desktops
    • Buying new computers to support upgraded operating systems and software is no longer necessary
  6. Less expensive software
    • Many web apps are free
    • Paid web apps can be accessed by any number of devices for a monthly or annual subscription
    • Desktop software purchases and upgrades can be expensive, especially when installed on multiple computers per user
  7. More computing power
    • Can rapidly scale up (or down) computing needs without acquiring (or disposing) hardware
    • Complex calculations can be done on servers instead of your computer, enabling new features such as voice dictation on phones or rapidly searching an e-mail archive
  8. Collaboration is simpler, yet more powerful
    • Google Apps, Zimbra, Zoho, and other web providers offer collaborative functionality at a fraction of the cost and complication of MS Exchange-based solutions
    • Some forms of web app collaboration are not even possible on desktops (i.e. wikis, blogs, Ning communties)
  9. Data backed up automatically and frequently
    • Personal backup systems are usually less regular, less reliable, and less geographically dispersed than backup systems of large web service providers such as Google and Yahoo!
    • If a fire burns down your home, how much data do you lose? (At most a few minutes’ worth if all your data is in the cloud)
    • Even safer are hybrid cloud/desktop backup strategies such as Dropbox, which synchronize data between web servers and multiple computers

This is an incomplete list of benefits to cloud computing, but I believe these are the key benefits for home or small business users. Here are some additional resources on the benefits of cloud computing:

Security benefits of cloud computing

20 reasons web apps are superior to desktop apps

Google’s view of cloud computing

The Cons of Cloud Use

  1. Internet connection required
    • When Internet goes down, you can’t work
    • Internet access when traveling is sometimes slow or unavailable
    • Some web service providers are attempting to address this with offline modes, but most current implementations are incomplete or buggy (will likely be less of an issue a few years from now as offline modes improve and the Internet becomes available almost everywhere)
  2. Inferior functionality
    • Some types of web services have far fewer features than their desktop counterparts  (i.e. spreadsheets, personal finance, image editing)
    • Graphics intensive software such as fast-paced games work poorly as a web service
    • Some web services are too slow without a fast Internet connection
  3. Vendor lock-in and data portability risk
    • Desktop data is clearly your own, but what about cloud data?
    • When proprietary data formats are used, changing service providers can be difficult
    • Some web services make it easy to export or backup your data, but some don’t (hint: sign up only for services with good data export options)
    • Your data is scattered across multiple services, so it is harder to routinely backup to your own hard drive(s)
  4. Security
    • The Internet abounds with security threats
    • Some users have reported automatically losing accounts and data with Google or other web services after hacker break-ins
    • Cross-site scripts which install key logging software are especially problematic because passwords can be recorded and stolen as they are being typed (can happen from merely visiting a web site, with the user totally unaware)
    • Hackers routinely break into accounts with simple passwords (names, personal data, words from the dictionary, or anything less than 10 characters)
    • There are several ways to mitigate security risks, but all require user knowledge and diligence.  The most important safeguard is good password management, which I describe here
  5. Privacy
    • Some web services do not share your data, some do
    • Some web services use your data to serve you targeted ads (usually in return for a free account)
    • Privacy agreements are often so long and tedious that few people read them
    • Web services must share individual data with the government if subpoenaed as part of a criminal investigation
  6. Loss of control (and potential data loss)
    • Upgrades happen whether (and when) you like it or not
    • Upgrades sometimes introduce bugs or undesirable interface changes (you usually have no option to revert a prior version)
    • When service interruptions happen, you have no idea how long they will last
    • What happens to deleted data varies by web service, and is sometimes unclear
    • A web service provider can go out of business without giving you an opportunity to recover data, or without securely erasing data
    • Web services with a sync component can propagate errors across all devices before a user realizes what is going on (mitigated if the service has version and/or deletion histories)
  7. Complexity
    • Evaluating and managing web services can be time consuming
    • Choosing the wrong web service provider can lead to one of the problems mentioned earlier in this section

This is an incomplete list of drawbacks to cloud computing, but I believe these are the key concerns of home users or small businesses. Here are some additional resources on the drawbacks of cloud computing:

Wikipedia’s list of cloud concerns

Bernard Golden’s case against cloud computing for the enterprise

Microsoft’s critique of Google Apps

PC World on data loss

Richard Stallman’s critique of cloud computing

Who should move to the cloud?

If some or most of the following apply to your situation, you might consider migrating some of your work to the cloud:

  • You routinely access data from multiple devices
  • You travel frequently
  • You use your phone to access e-mail, calendar, and contacts
  • You communicate electronically throughout the day
  • You frequently collaborate with others on projects or reports
  • You are trying to set up e-mail and other services inexpensively for a new business
  • You are trying to keep costs for software and hardware low
  • You are not routinely backing up your data

Who should stay with the desktop?

If some or most of the following apply, then you probably won’t want to migrate much of your work to the cloud:

  • You access data from a single device
  • Your privacy is very important to you
  • You don’t travel much
  • You don’t use a computer much
  • You rarely collaborate with others on projects or reports
  • You routinely back up your data and store some backups in a different building from your computer
  • You are part of a mid-sized or larger organization with an entrenched information technology infrastructure

Last Words

Life was definitely simpler when I had a home office with a single computer.  Once I moved to an outside office, life become more complicated. I tried to keep my work computer as my main data repository to keep things simple. But all too often I found that my data, especially e-mail, was not where I needed it when I needed it. And that was what started my move from the desktop to the cloud. Over the course of the next 12 months, I gradually adopted one web service after another until I ended up with Gmail as a launching point for much of my work.

So why are people moving to the cloud? In my case, the need to access data from multiple devices was the most important reason. But you’ll hear different answers depending on who you ask, explaining different benefits and drawbacks. Changing anything you do in life takes time and attention, and moving to the cloud is no exception.

For many people used to desktop computing, there is not yet a compelling reason to migrate to the cloud. For those who have questions about the cloud, this post may be a good starting point. And for those who have already started the move from the desktop to the cloud and would like to hear more about password security, Gmail, Evernote, Dropbox . . . stay tuned.

Filed in category: Browsers and the cloud.


  1. Dr. Bill
    June 2, 2009 at 12:56 PM

    It seems to me that “cloud” is just another name for a distributed data network, accessed by a smart terminal or client device. This is hardly a new concept. Only the gadgets that comprise current technology for access are new.

  2. June 2, 2009 at 1:18 PM

    Dr. Bill – I agree with you that “cloud” is just another name for a distributed data network, accessed by a smart terminal or client device. However, what is different is the quality of the software services.

    Computer access was through dumb terminals prior the 1970s, so everything was on the cloud. From the early 1980s until recently, software functionality and interfaces were far superior on personal computers for most types of applications. But the pendulum is swinging back towards the cloud (or distributed data networks, or whatever you want to call them), as the quality of software available as a web service has greatly increased in recent years, and is now superior to desktop software in certain categories (Gmail versus Outlook, Evernote versus Onenote, etc.) and not even available on the desktop in other categories (search, wikis, blogs, wikipedia, etc.).

    So what is different is that for 25 years, using a desktop to get most kinds of work done was the only choice for most individuals, whereas now there is clearly a choice between the desktop and the cloud in many categories of software. A growing percentage of people are choosing the cloud over the desktop, and many expect this trend to accelerate as it is usually simpler and less epensive.

  3. Barney
    July 8, 2009 at 11:47 PM

    Many thanks for this very helpful post. It’s good to be able to see the pros and cons of cloud computing set out like this. What you say confirms things I’ve been thinking about for a while.

    It seems to me that one of the big drawbacks to cloud computing is the as-yet uneven spread of broadband access. I’m writing in the UK. I live within 20 miles of a major city, and yet the best download speed I can get approximates to 1Mbs or less. It’s good enough for most of what I do, but for some things it’s just not adequate. Add to that the lack of broadband access when I’m travelling and in some places I go to, and I’m stuck with files and apps on my laptop.

    Like you, I’ve adopted a “mixed economy” with respect to cloud and desktop computing.

  4. July 9, 2009 at 9:47 AM

    Thanks for your comment, Barney. I agree that adoption of web services will be slow in areas with limited broadband access. Over the next few years, several trends should accelerate to move to the cloud:

    * Wired and cellular broadband access will be much more widespread
    * Browsers will be faster
    * HTML5 and/or Google Gears will allow most web services to cache data so that documents and other forms of static data can be displayed or edited while offline

    Personally, both my home and office have faster broadband than yourself so it’s already there for me. And as I mentioned in the article, I have a Blackberry with T-mobile that can do tethering if I really need to access my data while traveling. It’s slow, but much better than nothing for accessing my various Google services like Gmail, calendar, news, reader, etc. Maybe I’m at the forefront now, but this will likely be standard in 2 or 3 years.

  5. July 9, 2009 at 1:16 PM

    I’ve noticed over the years that the majority of documents that I save, I never really use again anyway. If it is really something important I print it out and put it in a file cabinet or on a bookshelf for safekeeping.

    Computing in the clouds is really just a matter of ‘when’ anyway so I am just waiting to see how I will adapt.

  6. Todd Clarke
    October 18, 2010 at 8:02 AM

    I was just getting ready to write a short post about cloud computing on my blog. Did a quick search and saw your great article here that brings all the worthwhile considerations together very nicely. I will link to this. I am fully digging the cloud myself, mostly via Evernote, Google, Dropbox, and Instapaper, with Evernote being my heavy hitter. One thing I have not fully considered yet is, how to migrate all of this data if I decide to take this elsewhere? Thoughts? Thanks for the great content, Joe!

  7. October 18, 2010 at 8:26 AM

    Todd – Being able to take your data with you is very important, but unfortunately there is no uniform migration policy among cloud providers. In general, Google has been among the leaders in making it easy for users to take their data with them. For example, Google Notebook was discontinued a couple years ago but Google clearly pointed out how to migrate data, and several service providers (including Evernote) provided a seamless tool for migrating the data. With Dropbox – of course you automatically have all your data all the time.

    Before adopting any cloud service, this is one of the key questions you’ll need to have answered to your satisfaction.

    One last comment – once a service gets “big” enough, it seems like there is always a way for the data to survive, or even the service itself to survive. For example, Xmarks (a bookmarks syncing service I use) recently announced they were shutting their doors in January. But they are so popular among their millions of users that many pledged to pay $10/year to keep the doors open, and now several suiters are in discussions with Xmarks to possibly acquire it. So one generally good piece of advice is to stick with the larger service providers.