Friday, March 29, 2013

Cloudy Futures

A Warning Not to Get
Too Caught Up in the Cloud
Clipart no. 21539161
One of my friends, Diana Holquist—yes, the same friend I mentioned in Royal Purple a few posts back—had a troubling experience this week. Apple suspended her iTunes account without warning and refused to let her back in for a variety of reasons that on the surface seem ridiculous: she couldn’t remember the answers to security questions she’d set up more than five years ago; she couldn’t supply the serial number to a computer she no longer owned; Apple has refused to accept the serial number for the computer she does own or her alternate e-mail address, even though the computer is registered to her and the address contains her full name. As I write this post, a solution remains elusive, the cause  unclear. (Did one of her kids—or a hacker—try to access the account without her knowing? Did she get caught in some computerized version of mistaken identity?)

What is clear is that even the Apple Genius can’t unlock her account. Which means no access to the songs, movies, TV shows, books, etc., that she has purchased over the years. No access to archived mail messages. No access even to her own documents, which in the last year Apple has been pushing people to store on iCloud—setting up its software to save there by default, meaning that less computer-savvy people may not even realize what’s going on.

The point of this post is not to bash Apple, although when a company manages to turn a loyal customer into someone determined never to spend another dollar in its stores, that company may want to reconsider its practices. Apple got bad publicity in August 2012, when a hacker used a stolen credit card number to gain access to the iCloud account of a reporter, then wiped all the information off the reporter’s phone, iPad, and Mac, one after another. The reporter wrote up his experience as a warning to others. So if Apple is nervous, even to the point of over-compensating, one can understand. At the same time, real people forget their security questions and passwords. They sell computers and move on to newer machines. If someone can show up at an Apple Store and prove her identity, then surely the rules of common sense should apply.

These two complementary stories highlight a real and evolving problem. Like many people, I rely on my computer. I write my novels on it. I use it to store pictures, music, books, letters, e-mail, and all kinds of important documents for home and for work. I surf the Web, for pleasure and for research. Having my computer crash, or even the house cable modem go on the fritz, feels like being thrown into the Dark Ages without a map back to the present. It’s enough to trigger a full-blown anxiety attack.

Even so, I have watched with some bemusement the growth of the various cloud services—bemusement because I am old enough to remember when the excitement of personal computers lay precisely in their independence: you didn’t need a teletype terminal to connect to a mainframe; you could maintain your own files and programs.

I am not a Luddite. I ditched my typewriter thirty years ago and never looked back. I understand that hard drives fail, that disasters happen, that it’s useful to have offsite backups. I keep copies of my novels in six different locations, including an offsite backup service. I keep multiple copies of work files, too. But I remain suspicious of large companies that promise to keep working copies of my documents on a server somewhere, even if it means that I can access them from anywhere in the world. The trend back toward machines that function primarily to connect us to an online service that stores the programs and files we need for everyday life bothers me. What happens when the company decides (as tech companies often do) that this service is not reaping the expected benefits and discontinues it? What happens if the company decides it no longer trusts you, as happened with my friend Diana?

Google Apps used to be free; now it’s not. For the moment, users who signed up in the old days are grandfathered in, but will that deal last? Google has also announced plans to shut the doors on its popular Reader service as of July 1, 2013—unconcerned that many independent RSS readers rely on Google Reader. Instead, it has announced a new Notes program, to compete with Evernote—among other services. Users are supposed to take it on faith that Notes will remain available as long as they need it. Sorry, I think I’ll wait and see.

Google is not the only company that changes on a dime. iCloud used to be MobileMe, which used to be .Mac, which began life as a free service that soon cost $100/year. Computers once came with built-in drives (disk drives, then CD drives, then DVD drives), so that you didn’t absolutely need an Internet connection just to install a program. Now, in many cases, they don’t.

I could go on, but I’m sure I’ve made my point. Things change. In the world of technology they change with more than the usual speed—often for the better, but not always. Still, you can bet that I won’t be letting my programs use iCloud as their default location anytime soon….

As I finished the draft on this post, the news came over the wire that plans to buy Goodreads for an undisclosed sum. The site’s users are up in arms, while its founders and staff assure them that nothing will change—oblivious, it seems, to the reality that something fundamental already has. By the end of the next fiscal quarter, the world’s largest bookseller will control access to sixteen million self-proclaimed book readers, to whom it can promote authors selected by itself by means that it will determine, because it holds the purse strings—no matter how much the Goodreads staff trumpets its independence. Wave of the future, they say, but the future looks distinctly cloudy from here.


  1. Still not into my account!!!! Honestly, I don't think they'll ever let me back in. It's as if my bank is telling me, sorry, forgot your pin? You'll never see your money again.

    My only hope is the revenge of the writer: blog posts, essays, references in novels.

    But then yesterday, my teenage daughter bought an iPhone. So much for revenge.

    Thanks for writing this. Great post!

  2. Teenagers! Honestly, has the child no loyalty to her long-suffering mom?!


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