Please Mr Ballmer, Don’t Cloud The Message

“I don’t understand a bloody word he says.” This according to the Guardian’s Charles Arthur was a direct quote of a fellow journalist sitting alongside him at yesterday’s London School of Economics and Political Science’s (to give this venerable institution its proper moniker) ‘Audience with Chief Microsoft CloudMeister Steve Ballmer’ or “Seizing the Opportunity of the Cloud: the Next Wave of Business Growth”(to give the event its proper moniker).

As an non attendee, I can only imagine what was said at the event (whilst gaining an overall gist from Charles Arthur’s excellent live updates) but am pretty confident it would have touched on how well placed Microsoft are to take advantage of the cloud, how the cloud will liberate us from traditional technologies and practices, and I’ve no doubt that Ballmer’s speech will have been liberally peppered with terms such as private cloud, infrastructure, innovation, paradigm shift, the future etc and if so the journalist’s quote at the top of this blog is not entirely unsurprising.

Subsequent reporting from the event suggest that Ballmer stated that consumers were always “implicitly moving to the cloud, and that the trick now was for the cloud to become smarter at understanding who was on the network, how they accessed it, and how best to deliver what they wanted.” (For this read: What Microsoft needs to do to sell products)

Whoa! now I try and keep up with the latest developments in all things cloud and IT related, but I must have missed the chapter in ‘Cloud for Dummies’ which described the cloud as a living entity – perhaps there is a version written by Isaac Asimov that has yet to reach my local library.

Now I’m all for evangelising and scoping out the future and who knows, maybe in 50 years time, we will have an intelligent cloud (and hopefully Hover Cars) but please Mr Ballmer, can we keep this hype under control for a little while longer yet.

If we are to succeed in bringing both consumers and businesses to the cloud table we need simple specifics, simple benefits and simple terminology. We do not need to be describing the cloud as if it is some living breathing beast, which will one day control our lives for us. It’s not – it’s the internet.

And in case we’d forgotten, there are still huge numbers of people in the world who have yet to experience browsing, sending an email or downloading an MP3 and who, frankly, probably never will. In fact 20% of the UK population – about 10 million people – are currently estimated to still have no experience of using computers or the internet.

Is it any wonder that internet users are worried about their personal data, or that businesses give data security fears as a key reason for not adopting cloud, a fact openly acknowledged today by Ballmer, when he is describing the cloud in such a fashion? Naturally, questions are then raised about ownership of the cloud, control of the cloud and regulation of the cloud, creating further barriers, real or imagined, that prevent users from engaging.

Industry Analysts and commentators may feel comfortable with the industry definitions of the cloud, but do the end users – the customers – the very people that will deliver Microsoft its $26 BN of pre tax? I’m not so sure.

I attended an extremely informative workshop yesterday organised by the Digital Communications and the Digital Systems Knowledge Transfer Networks in Manchester. The theme of the event was ‘What can Cloud Computing do for your business?” and the audience was a nice blend of academics, business owners, analysts and cloud service providers. The objective for the event was quite simple. It provided a platform for delegates to air their concerns about Cloud, discuss how these matters can be mitigated as well as how business can benefit from the economies of scale and new service concepts that Cloud can provide. The feedback was illuminating.

To summarise, the main concern around cloud computing was the lack of clear, simple, tangible definition as to what ‘it’ means in lay terms and how this translates into benefits for business. The consensus view was that there is no point extolling the virtues of a concept simply because it’s the latest buzz or that you have to get on board because everyone else is.

Standing up and informing the audience that one day soon, we’ll be able to video conference our customers, take them through our latest offerings whilst gaining collaborative feedback, and arranging same day shipping via location services, at the touch of mobile phone button is all fine and dandy, but loses it impact somewhat when half the room is full of businesses who currently can’t get a half decent connection to the internet or have spent three hours on a train to the venue without a mobile signal or wifi access.

Time and time again, delegates raised the same issues: connectivity, latency, uptime, couldn’t ‘give a hoot’ about the technology, not interested in what ‘happens under the bonnet’, simply want ‘good solid compelling reasons for changing our business processes so that we might be more efficient or more profitable’.

What was clear from the floor was that for full scale business adoption of the ‘cloud’ to materialise, players in the market were going to have to ‘walk the talk’ and demonstrate solid good old fashioned business credentials such as service level guarantees, recognised accreditations, customer service, clear pricing, vendor agility, agnostic platforms, financial stability and proven expertise. For this audience, buying into the cloud was going to be no different to engaging with any other professional services provider.

Peace of mind was what most delegates wanted from the cloud – not Star Wars.

Phil Worms is the director of corporate communications for iomart Group, one of Europe’s largest providers of managed hosting, cloud computing and business continuity services. Having spent 25 years working in the IT industry he is recognised as one of its brightest thinkers. He regularly contributes internet and "new media" related features for trade publications and national newspapers and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is an advocate of social media using it for both business and charitable causes. Phil has sat on several national advisory committees ranging from the provision of broadband access to online safety initiatives. He is now heavily involved in the debate surrounding the greening of IT with energy efficiency and carbon emission reduction a particular topic of interest. In his spare time Phil is dedicated to raising money in an attempt to bring a new arts and music centre to his hometown of Helensburgh. It is this venture that has given him his finest moment – being mentioned on David Bowie’s official website when he organised a mass community recording of the classic song Heroes!