GNU Founder Warns Cloud Computing is a Trap

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Photo courtesy wwww.stallman.org

Web-based applications like Google’s Gmail and Apple’s MobileMe will force people to buy into locked, proprietary systems that will cost more and more over time and ultimately put user’s data at risk, according to Richard Stallman, founder of The Free Software Foundation and creator of the open source operating system GNU. He calls cloud computing “worse than stupidity” in an interview with The Guardian. Follow after the jump to learn why cloud computing is not such a good idea and why Apple users should already know this.

A growing number of people store information on internet-accessible servers rather than on their own machines, a trend that has become a core part of the rise of Web 2.0 applications. Millions of people now upload personal data such as emails, photographs and, increasingly, their work, to sites owned by companies such as Google and Apple, which Stallman finds is little more than the effect of a marketing hype campaign.

“Somebody is saying this is inevitable –œ and whenever you hear somebody saying that, it’s very likely to be a set of businesses campaigning to make it true,” he told The Guardian.

Stallman would appear to be tapped into a collective nerve that was all aflame earlier this year when Apple rolled out its .Mac conversion to MobileMe along with the iPhone 3G launch in July. When MobileMe’s cloud computing platform experienced problems with accessibility and stability, Apple support forums and the blogosphere exploded with rage at the frustration of users’ inability to access their data. Apple was even cowed into offering all MobileMe subscribers first a 30 day extension of their service and, not six weeks later, and additional 30 day extension.

Where is MobileMe now? It seems to have disappeared from the conversation. Or is it just that people love to yammer on about Apple things that don’t work or are broken, and when they are fixed or working fine you can hear crickets chirping…

Stallman’s concerns are echoed by Oracle founder Larrry Ellison, who has criticized the rash of cloud computing announcements as “fashion-driven” and “complete gibberish”, which is interesting given Oracle’s connection to NetSuite, a major player in the cloud computing business solutions sector.

Both Ellison and Stallman’s comments, however, reflect growing concern that widespread adoption of cloud computing presents a mixture of privacy and ownership issues, with users potentially being locked out of their own data.

For his part, Stallman advises people to keep their computing local. “One reason you should not use web applications to do your computing is that you lose control,” he said. “It’s just as bad as using a proprietary program. Do your own computing on your own computer with your copy of a freedom-respecting program. If you use a proprietary program or somebody else’s web server, you’re defenseless. You’re putty in the hands of whoever developed that software.”

That’s a lesson some Apple users should have learned this summer.

16 responses to “GNU Founder Warns Cloud Computing is a Trap”

  1. Guest says:

    True the guy is a fanatic, and is nuttier than a pecan tree, but he makes a good point about the “cloud.” Ceding convenience for control can be dangerous if control suddenly decides that your and their best interests are not the same.

  2. cstar says:

    From my perspective MobileMe is not a problem. It’s a *mirror* of what I have on my Mac. So would mobileme sync go down for a week, well … I don’t care that much. (I do tweet about it though).

    The problem lies with google more than mobileme.

    On the server side, Google Apps are a trap, because it’s very reliant on Google’s software abstracting from bare iron. But Amazon Web Services, not that much. It’s linux virtual servers, they too can be moved. S3 has a few API compatible competitors too.

  3. Devan says:

    The whole point of Ellison’s comments is just to say that the term has expanded beyond usefulness. Calling NetSuite “cloud computing” is an excellent example.

    Just because there’s data stored elsewhere than on the local machine, doesn’t mean the data’s in the cloud. Or, if that’s what it *does* mean, then as Ellison points out, “we’ve redefined cloud computing to include everything that we already do.”

  4. Matt says:

    Where’s the Admiral Ackbar pic? “IT’S A TRAP!”

    While GNU has done a lot for people and business around the world, Stallman is too much of a zealot for my taste. Saying cloud computing “is just as bad as using a proprietary program” makes me look at all of the wonderful proprietary software that I use, and has either no OSS analogue or one that is bloated and slow (e.g. openoffice). Not that OpenOffice or anything else OSS is bad or shouldn’t be out there, I just find the proprietary stuff to be a better fit for me, and anyone who makes blanket statements one way or another smacks of zealotry to me.

    Now it’s a lot more surprising to hear Larry Ellison come out against cloud computing, but I feel most of the concerns are mitigated by two things.

    The reputational impact of a company screwing with cloud data would be immense. Look at the outcry over the Spore DRM or the MobileMe troubles, and multipy that by 100.

    It’s usually quite easy to make local backups of your cloud data. MoblieMe does it as a matter of course, and it’s pretty easy with Google’s services as well. If you have your own copy of the data, a lot of the worry over being locked out fades.

  5. observer says:

    Commander Data…. is that you?

  6. John Dingler says:

    Visionaries and people who talk truth to power, as Richard Stallman clearly is, will be called names, demeaned, and criticized on a personal level. These ad hominem attacks are a logical fallacy, resoundly demonstrating that his critics are emotionally involved in destroying him and his vision. He is being Swifboated by Rovians, exactly the type of Fascist, and less so Stalinist attitude that is tanking Wall Street which then relies on socialistic principles for remedies. So I say do not shout him down, but listen and learn.

  7. lonbud says:

    @Devan – I must respectfully disagree with your perspective on Netsuite and cloud computing.

    With a nod toward what Matt has to say about backups, Netsuite is a classic example of computing where not only the data itself is crucial, but the processes used (for which subscribers pay tens of thousands of dollars annually to enjoy the privilege) to organize and manipulate the data that are crucial, and for which subscribers can be held hostage, to which they have no enforceable privacy rights or ownership rights -that is the problem.

    I can personally attest to the sad tale of a company that had its final coffin nail hammered home when, after running into financial problems, Netsuite denied it access to data that might have been possible to help save it from bankruptcy. Even though raw data back-ups had been made, without the organizing and manipulating functions of the Netsuite back-end, the data was virtually worthless and Larry Ellison’s company said, “tough luck, partner.”

    Services like Netsuite are absolutely a perfect example of the “trap” Stallman is talking about.

  8. jnjn says:

    @ John Dingler,

    Visionary in one direction, utter fool in the other.