Welcome to the out-of-control decade
We have seen the future, and it doesn't belong to you
Goo•gle: v. tr. [goō-gəl] to control
Ten years from now, the concept of keeping all your personal apps and files on your local device - except for high-end systems used by pro-level content creators - may be as passé as booting your PC using toggle switches.
They will instead reside somewhere in the cloud, out of sight, out of mind - and out of your direct control.
This transition will be hastened by ever-faster wireless broadband, ever-increasing online storage capabilities, and an ever-expanding megacorporation that is single-mindedly seeking to control every last corner of the online universe: Google.
The world's largest online ad merchant and search provider has already begun its efforts to move apps and files off your machine and into its data centers. To be sure, its Google Apps suite provides cost-effective convenience, but to take advantage of its benefits you need to relinquish control of your content.
Meanwhile, with roughly 70 per cent of today's online search market, Google is well on its way to knowing everything about what you're looking for online, and its AdSense and DoubleClick services inform the search giant which ad-enabled pages you've visited. Add to that Mountain View's recent decision to implement what it calls its Google Public DNS, and your web habits are both trackable and storable.
And as Google's search and ad market share grows, it controls more of what you see on the web. When you search or visit an AdSense site, you're seeing the links Google wants you to see. Mountain View also personalizes your search results based on your prior searches, ostensibly to show you what it thinks you're interested in - there's that pesky control issue again - but in reality its goal is a purely commercial one: to better target ads to you.
Again, as with having all your data in the cloud, there's nothing inherently wrong with targeting ads. It's just that in both of those cases you're transferring control to Google. If that's fine with you, then, well, more power to you. Just remember, as Tom Waits sang, "There's always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby."
But the vast majority of those internet users who fall under the Mr. and Ms. Average Consumer sobriquet are not even aware that Google is personalizing the search results it presents to them. They believe they are seeing the web as a level playing field of unfiltered information, merely presented to them for their edification and enjoyment.
They don't know that they've handed over a fair amount of their control over their search experience to the world's largest online ad broker.
Today, Google claims that it will dump information that its Google Public DNS obtains about your personal IP address in a day or two, and that it won't combine DNS data with data it collects elsewhere. But that's not the point.
What matters is that you're entrusting all that information to Google - with an emphasis on the word "trust." Google may paint itself as a benevolent actor interested only in making the online world a better place to visit, but whether it actually has your best interests at heart is beyond your control.
As OpenDNS founder David Ulevitch put it, "To think that Google's DNS service is for the benefit of the Internet would be naïve."
Google is planning another control grab with its recently unveiled Chrome OS - which isn't actually an operating system per se, but rather a means to run browser-based applications. And only browser-based applications - local apps won't run on Chrome OS–based machines, which is just as well, seeing as how the OS won't support devices with hard drives.
So where will Chrome OS apps reside, along with their data? Yup, up in that cloud, out of your direct control. And when those apps come down out of that cloud onto say, a Google netbook, the Google OS could prioritize which apps would get priority UI treatment - and you can be darn sure that if that's the case, Mountain View will put its own apps front and center.
And even if Google does deign to give all apps equal access to the Chrome OS UI, its own apps would still have a leg up on the competition. Since Mountain View keeps the latest versions of its OS code to itself until it releases them into the wild, its own apps have a head start on each new feature.
Mountain View will therefore be able to expand its control not only over its customer base, but also over its developer ecosystem.
How very Apple of them.
And, of course, sweeping control over apps and access increases control over pricing and services distribution.
Today, consumer-level cloud computing is a distant competitor to locally focused PCs and handhelds. But expect that to change over the coming decade as locked-down netbooks, increasingly powerful pocket computers, and such devices as Apple's long-rumored media pad and its follow-ons make their appearance, supported by low-cost or carrier-subsidized services.
But remember that low-cost and no-cost services can become pricier as time goes by, when they reach a saturation level at which enough users rely upon them. At that point, providers can risk driving away some subscribers by initiating fee structures. Long-time Mac aficionados, for example, well remember Apple's iDisk, part of its free iTools online services released in 2000. Two years later, iTools morphed into .Mac - for $100 per year.
The next decade will see companies such as Apple, Google, their imitators, and their competitors squelching user choice and increasing lock-in. However, computing won't be the only area in which control will be leached away by entities seeking more control over you and your wallet.
According to Intel prognosticators, halfway through the out-of-control 2010s there will be 15 billion devices connected to the internet. And those 15 billion devices will fill the cloud with a staggering amount of information. About you.
Don your tinfoil hat - we're going to take a quick jaunt through a possible future dystopia.
Next page: Paranoia strikes (digitally) deep