Nick Carr was nice enough to send us a copy of his new book “The Big Switch”. In turn, I was more than happy to read it. Here are my impressions.
When I was first invited to open my Gmail account in 2004, I did so mainly out of curiosity. At the time, Web-based software was an emerging trend. Most were unsure as to its actual usefulness. It was like the repeated predictions for the internet fridge — certainly possible, but why would you need it? Nowadays, Gmail is my primary email client. I will never install a client side application to handle my email again.
See how I said “Never” as in “Not Ever”?
That’s the Big Switch.
The central premise of Nick’s book is that what happened to the business of power generation at the beginning of the last century will happen to software publishers at the beginning of this one. Just as in-house power generation was supplanted by large, scalable, remote, centralized power plants, user installed and maintained computer systems will be supplanted by large, scalable, remote computers, hosted over the internet.
Because computer software can be deployed remotely, just like power generation, the infrastructure of the World Wide Web allows companies that specialize in software to offer us their services without users having to understand how these services operate — and certainly without being responsible for their maintenance and upgrade. The days of people who want to write a letter also having to be amateur computer technicians will fade into obscurity. After all, you don’t need to know Ohm’s Law to plug in Mr. Coffee, right?
It’s an attractive proposition. To me, storing your personal photos on a local machine seems risky — why not store them at flickr, or Picasa? They have far better data security than you do, unless you have armed guards patrolling your house. Online file storage services, like box.net and the Windows Live services are also spearheading this drive of consumer applications into “the cloud”
The historical parallels between electricity and software wear thin at times. Electricity is not like software in many ways. Electricity doesn’t have bugs. It has a binary success/fail metric: Either my lights are on or they are off. Software has a wide array of places were things can go wrong. In the case of cloud computing, the artifacts sent over the wire are not as replaceable as a few watts — as anyone who’s ever lost a perfectly composed blog post knows. The computer engineers working on this information shift have vastly more difficult problems to solve than the electrical engineers of the 1900’s.
At the same time, the similarities are striking. Of particular relevance to the growing Enterprise 2.0 crowd is the frame of mind of the early electricity pioneers like Thomas Edison. Edison expected to sell systems for generating electricity to millions of companies and governments all over the world. He didn’t grasp the notion of centralized power plants until it was too late. (General Electric, his company, had to re-invent itself on the consumer side of electricity.) Now there is a new wave of innovation being born right now in the field of enterprise software, largely spurred by what Nick calls “The World Wide Computer”. It’s an exciting time to be working on this problem.
The Big Switch is a book about change, and how entrepreneurship and innovation lead people to deal with it. It thoroughly investigates the impending shift from a historical, economic and ethical perspective. It uses clear, concise language that steers clear of technical jargon and clearly delineates between past, present and future. Reading it provoked much head-nodding and agreement. It’s a well written, well researched, and very timely book.
If you have a manager or colleague who is still clinging to the notion that “The Internet is a passing fad” or dragging their feet on your latest web project, this is an excellent book to give them in order to spur them along.
(If they adamantly refuse to read it, this one might be a better choice..)