Technology

The Sky is Rising: Why 2012 Was the Cloud's Year

By / Dec 21, 2012 (Goodshoot/Thinkstock)

While a diversity of innovative, often disruptive ideas defined 2012 in the tech world, all of them, in their own way, follow the decentralized ethos of cloud computing.

Who had the best 2012? Instagram and Pinterest are in the running, but the real winner might be Dropbox, with the runner-up being its similarly named competitor, Box.net.

If 2012 could be described in a single word, it would be “decentralized.”

Increasingly, we’re not tied down to a single platform, a single device, a single approach to doing things.

For the past few years, a number of key technologies—smartphones and social media among them—have jockeyed to be the lead item for tech execs. Some of these technologies may have gotten bigger headlines than cloud services, but the cloud is the fundamental element that brings everything together.

Social networks couldn’t breathe without Amazon S3. Dropbox makes sharing stuff on Android phones bearable. And beyond that, cloud computing is simply rewiring how things work. It makes decentralization happen for better and worse.

Here’s why.

The Cloud Gained Steam …

Cloud computing had its coming-out party with Gmail’s release eight years ago, but 2012 was the year when the diversity of it hit both the mainstream and the business world. Some examples:

Thinking inside the box: Who had the best 2012? Instagram and Pinterest are in the running, but the real winner might be Dropbox, with the runner-up being its similarly named competitor, Box.net. Dropbox hit 100 million users in November, has already turned down a buyout offer from Steve Jobs in its short life, is so functionally diverse that startups like Scriptogr.am use it to power their services, and has drawn direct competition from the likes of Google and Microsoft. Competitor Box.net, meanwhile, has built an impressive empire of its own by focusing on business users: 77 percent of Fortune 500 companies use the service. Not bad.

Evernote keeps things moving: With new platforms come new workflows. Outlook and ActiveSync may have a grip on the inbox, but in the organization space, Microsoft is starting to feel some heavy heat from Evernote, a multifaceted note-taking platform that event planners in particular are finding great uses for.

The social web’s enabler: If Dropbox is cloud computing’s direct line to the end-user, Amazon Web Services have helped drive innovation to the rest of the internet. The service, which counts Dropbox among its customers, gives startups the ability to build infrastructure easily. The service has played a direct role in the growth of Twitter, Reddit, and Netflix, among other household names, and is far more popular than its competition. Without Amazon Web Services, social media wouldn’t be nearly as awesome.

The glue that ties services together: The potential for what the cloud can do is clear from technologies like IFTTT, which gives anyone with a hankering to copy their photos from Flickr to Twitter, or Evernote to Dropbox, the ability to do so without having to learn rocket science or Javascript. It’s simple. It’s free. And it’s genius.

This sort of plug-and-play functionality was unheard of a couple of years ago. But it comes with side effects.

… And Tech Execs Lost Control

The truth of the matter is, no matter how much you like or dislike the cloud as a business tool, it’s becoming harder than ever to ignore it—and that loss of control could pain tech execs.

In October, I wrote a piece on the rise of “Bring Your Own Cloud” services like Dropbox, which have often grown under the noses of association executives and other leaders. While there are options out there, some companies have taken heavy-handed responses in an effort to reel things back in. Notably IBM.

At the ASAE Technology Conference & Expo earlier this month, it was notable how many executives seemed concerned about the loss of control that this change created—with one exec suggesting FTP over Dropbox, and drawing guffaws from his peers.

But let’s think about this a little bit. While there are solutions to these pressing issues that balance security and portability (Box.net has built a nice business around this exact need), the truth is, these concerns can’t be ignored.

Why’s that? Well, consumers demand it.

Consumers First

It’s notable that the technologies defining the lay of the land—the cloud, smartphones, and social media—aren’t things businesses would necessarily focus on without prompting.

Demand for all of these items is being driven by consumers, whether end users (members) or internal (employees). Business-oriented technologies that drove previous eras, including the BlackBerry and the Windows-based desktop computer, are starting to lose their grip on mindshare. In both cases, traditional heavyweights are attempting not to lose their place, but they’re suddenly facing outside competition from unexpected quarters. Employees are expecting to bring their own tools into the office—and they’re doing so without necessarily consulting the IT staff first.

In some ways, while under a different name, the “cloud” extends to physical devices, approaches to work, and flexibility. We want it to work the way we like to work, wherever we’re currently situated.

We’ve increasingly decentralized everything. That’s great and all for end users, but the IT side probably doesn’t like the headaches it creates.

So how do we balance all these needs, all these headaches, all this freedom? Perhaps 2013 could be the year when IT and consumers find some common ground.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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