Return of the mainframe?

The PC has evolved from being standalone machines which don’t talk to each other, through dumb terminals which get their resources and documents from a central mainframe, to a combination of both as we have now. Our PCs are now more connected on OUR terms than ever before…although this may be another phase, if we all follow the Google marketing plans.

Microsoft have set the interaction method we are all used to with our PCs. They made us expect to see the “start” button at the bottom left, the clock at the bottom right etc. They made us expect the Office suite as it is. They don’t innovate much, but rather buy designs from others, and brand them as Microsoft. This does not change the fact that they set the bar.

Many software developers over the years have tried to re-invent the wheel…..and have failed due to the interface being alien to what the customer is used to, leaving many to take time and effort adapting…..or deciding not to bother trying. This is why EVERY office suite looks and feels broadly like Microsoft Office…..it makes people feel familiar quickly. An office suite is mostly used in a professional environment where time is money, which means downtime to learn and adapt has a cost in output.

As PC’s have evolved, where we store and work with those documents have evolved too. In a shared environment it’s likely that the documents you work on will be in a shared folder on a server set up and administered by your own company. This allows people in different departments of your company to contribute to it, or read it (permissions permitting). These documents are created on your own workstation PC, by an office application like Word or Excel which is installed on your workstation. Google want to change the landscape, and take evolution a step further…..and I see flaws in their ideology.

The office suite is a killer application on any PC, no matter which operating system it’s running, or which office suite it’s used. Google have decided to build their own alternatives to the office suite, allowing you to make a presentation file (PowerPoint), write a letter (Word), prepare a spreadsheet (Excel) among other services…..all online. Those services being free after you sign up is a great way of undercutting the Microsoft monopoly, but I don’t trust them.

Do we think that Google spend time and effort, not to mention the running costs of developing and running these services as a philanthropic gesture? Or is it more likely to be a marketing strategy? Google are the the most popular search engine by a long way, which in turn allows them to charge more on advertising. They’ve bought DoubleClick (an online advertising company)…..in fact, they are seen by many as trying to make sure that there is no alternative to Google for advertisers……creating a monopoly.

They have branched out into Yahoo and Hotmail territory with a PM and email service and client…..which I have to admit is very nice (I abandoned Yahoo and Hotmail for Gmail because they seem helpless to stop spam). Unlike others, Gmail does not add it’s own adverts to the footer of each email, but it does have a script which reads the BODY of your email and targets adverts to keywords it picks up. Let me explain the principle.

If I email someone and at some point in the body (not subject) I tell them “…..I got the new Sheryl Crow CD today, not as good immediate as her last one, but it’ll grow on me……” I am likely to see an advert trying to sell me “Sheryl Crow” concert tickets, T-Shirts, DVD’s etc. I have the “Customize Google” extension for Mozilla Firefox which let’s me block adverts in ALL of Google’s services, but all that means is that I am not seeing them in MY inbox. With the “Gmail Manager” extension it does make using the Google services nice and easy……but there’s a cost that many seem not to have noticed.

Before Google, our data was created, saved and shared on our companies servers….it was all internal, meaning we (our or company admistrators) have total control over it. Google want us to transfer or work to THEIR servers, work with it on THEIR servers and have it on THEIR servers…..and of course, to make sure only you or those you allow can work with them, you need a free account with Google, which means you sign in to work with them. This covers not only the office functions, but email, PM, groups, schedulers, blogs, search history, bookmarks etc……ALL TIED TOGETHER TO ONE ID.

We know Google are happy to put profits before people; this was shown in China where they censor references to Tiananmen Square for Chinese users, or give identifying details of dissident bloggers to the Chinese government. This allows them to do business in China, and have access to the lucrative and growing Chinese market.

The US government are in a increasingly paranoid state, and see enemies EVERYWHERE…..they also demand all sorts of private data about US to help them track down potential threats to their domination. They have pressured Google for search engine history…..so far Google have resisted, although this may change. They may offer anonymous statistics, rather than identifiable statistics. This was at a time where all Google had on us was out PC’s IP address, operating system, terms searched for, links clicked etc……the PC has evolved….the internet has evolved.

If you use a lot of Google services, it’s like having a filing cabinet (with your private company and personal dealings) in Google’s warehouse. Lets have a look at the type of data held on the GOOGLE servers….which could easily be collated and used for marketing, or handed to any government who wave enough money under the Google managements noses.

  1. Contact list (all your email contacts….not just email addresses, but business card details….often including real world addresses, phone numbers and names)

  2. Logs of every email conversation you’ve had with this service (including those contacts not on Google)….even deleted emails.

  3. Logs of every PM conversation you’ve had with the nifty little GoogleTalk program.

  4. Every draft of every letter, spreadsheet or presentation you create with them (do you do your taxes with it? Imagine the IRS being allowed legal secret access to audit you? They don’t need you, just Google)

  5. Everything you ever typed into the search engine, as well as the links you clicked afterwards……not to mention the referring link you arrived from.

  6. Every video you’ve uploaded or viewed on MySpace (any sharing services like Flikr which Google buy fit inside this category).

  7. The IP address of your PC (or company proxy)

This list is only for the services I can see offhand. I’ve not been tracking what Google have bought or merged with in detail. The list could (and most likely will) be a lot more intrusive than just this. The privacy concerns are based on the principle of Google controlling it……selling it, or offering it as a trading commodity to a favourable government……it does not take into account if Google is hacked. Identity theft is big business, and most people have no clue that their daily lifestyle gives plenty for the trained eye to spot…..and replicate.

I have recently switched over from Windows XP Pro to Mandriva Linux. This is why my blog has been rather unattended for a couple of days…..I am still getting the feel for my new Linux, with a lot of configuration to sort out yet. I use OpenOffice.org for my office suite, which is free for EVERYONE, and available on Windows or Linux. It is an ideal free alternative to the costly Microsoft Office suite. This suite plays by the same security rules as most non-Google suites; ie everything is created on YOUR workstation, and saved either there or on YOUR companies servers. This is like having your filing cabinet on YOUR property, not GOOGLE’s.

The idea of “mainframe” has returned…..and it’s being run by Google, for the profits of Google. The more or their services you use, the more you rely on it, and the more they have on their mainframe tied in to YOU. I like some of the Google services, like Gmail, and with the Firefox extensions they are easy to use….but I will NOT be allowing one company to gather a LOT more information on me than they need to.

A free service is rarely a free service, but a trade off. When you pay for something, the cost is obvious. The trade off we accept for many free services are worth the price……but it needs to be an informed cost to make an informed judgment. Companies often have whole departments, budgets or sub-contracted companies to mine data and allow them to target their advertising……this data is like gold dust to them; they can never have too much data on potential customers.

This is the price of a free service…..the choice you need to think about is “how” you use those free services and maintain your independence, privacy and security at the same time. The first option would be NOT to put all your eggs into one basket….in his case Google’s basket.

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