Recently, I heard a little girl standing with her father in the security line at the San Francisco airport ask, “Daddy, how does the Cloud work?” He leaned in and started to explain how water vapor molecules clump together due to air movements and temperature. She shook her head as if to imply he was really slow and said, “No daddy. The cloud. Like Apple’s iCloud.” To which he replied, “Oh honey, I have no idea how that works.”
Ah, the cloud. Or what Larry Ellison derisively calls the Internet.
Despite that the CEO himself considers cloud computing to be just a continuation of the Internet, Oracle made a huge deal of its recent Oracle Cloud suite of software and services. Did Oracle ride the marketing hype in using the cloud label? Yes, but so has nearly every technology player. If you don’t have a cloud solution, you might as well pack it in because cloud has become the defining term for the way we in the tech sector use and access data, applications, and services, and it sounds so much friendlier than the acronym for “software as a service.”
Our industry has done itself a disservice over decades by speaking in acronyms: OOP, RISC, RFID, iOS, MGs, APIs, ISDN, SMTP, USB, etc. Many have become common, but more often they are the dialect of the denizens of Geekville. For the rest of the world—the users—we have in recent years invented a new language in place of the alphabet soup.
This digital lingua franca reduces the protocol babel to a few vague yet powerful terms: Clouds, Apps, Social Networks, Big Data, and Mobile Devices. These meta terms allow us to paint a fairly simple picture of how people can live and work in a technology-enhanced world: use a mobile device of your choosing, via apps that reach into the cloud to grab your own data or access big data and share across your plethora of social networks. The simple terminology is both good and dangerous, as these words become at once encumbered with meaning and meaninglessness—catch-all labels and overhyped terms: “Now with Cloud!”
I encourage my colleagues in the technology industry to find a middle-ground language, to move beyond our historic speeds and feeds and acronym-speak, but not to oversimplify to the extent that the language and nomenclature say nothing. Technology has impacted industry, governments, and society—every human life on this planet. We need a way to talk about technology that honors the extraordinary role it plays in our world and yet makes it accessible to every man, woman, and child. We need to fight the temptation to dumb it down and the natural inclination to litter the conversation with tech-speak. And we need to rethink the meaningless buzzwords coined to attract consumers.
In 1991, IDG came out with the first series of Dummies Guides. Initially geared to “users” who wanted to know how to use a specific computer or software program, the Dummies Guides have spread to every facet of our lives. Their popularity speaks to a human desire to learn, to understand how things work, and to just be a little smarter. A return to the original Dummies book concept could help us refashion the way we talk about products and technologies, and to reveal engineering sophistication by describing what technology actually does for the user and how it works.
To illustrate, consider how Apple’s iCloud page describes what iCloud does:
iCloud does more than just store your content. It lets you access your music, photos, calendars, contacts, documents, and more, from whatever devices you’re on. And it’s built into every new iOS device and every new Mac.
Basic, yet it fails to explain how iCloud works. If we want consumers to be assured about trying something new that they don’t fully understand, then we really need to help them understand a little bit about how it works. Where does my music go to? Will it be safe? How long can it stay there? What devices can I use with it and if I move will it go with me? And yes, there may be an app for that, but what app and what does that do? If even Apple, the technology company that has arguably best figured out how to talk and market to people everywhere, can’t do better, then clearly we have some work to do developing language for explaining what technology does and the magic of how it does it.
That father in the airport security line could turn to his daughter and say, “The Cloud is a description for a software network that stores your music, photos, and videos so that you can use them on your iPad, my computer, or your mom’s phone. All your content is stored in software running on big computers in a data center to keep it safe and available any time.” At which point, his daughter, like Larry Ellison, might say, “Hmmm, sounds a lot like the Internet.”