Gone Shopping…

(OK, need a good, hard-hitting, gritty opening sentence this week to get people interested. Here we go...). Last week I went shopping. (Hmmm... not quite the impact I wanted, but press on regardless). I wanted a new battery for my camera, so I popped into a local specialist. "Hi," I said breezily, "I need a battery for an Olympus 1010 Stylus camera". "OK," replied the obviously knowledgeable young man behind the counter, "just fill in this form". He presented me with a long form where I had to enter my name, address, credit card details, and a myriad other details. Finally, when I gave it back to him, he said "Right. We don't actually have one in stock just now, but it should be here in a couple of weeks". Needless to say, I tore up the form and stormed out in disgust.

Across the road, I noticed a rather interesting looking computer store, and decided to have a wander round. After about half an hour, I'd filled my shopping basket with a dozen or so items, and sauntered over to the checkout. Suddenly, a rather aggressive looking lady took my basket off me and disappeared. After a few minutes she returned and gave me back an empty basket, explaining that there was a problem with the cash register, but I was welcome to go round the store again and refill the basket. I decided not to bother.

Somewhat irritated with the day's events, I thought I'd calm my temper with a cup of coffee and half an hour with my newspaper. A few doors down the street I found a nice coffee shop, though I was more than a little perturbed to see a sign on the door that read "Warning: for your safety you should only enter these premises wearing a red satin waistcoat and brown leather shoes". Now, red doesn't go with my complexion, and I don't own any brown shoes, but I decided it was worth the risk. However, I did ask the pleasant young lady behind the counter if I could see the manager to complain about this blatant discrimination. She replied that I had to tell her the password before I could speak to her boss. "How can I find out what the password is?" I asked. "I don't know", she replied, "He always keeps it in a sealed envelope in his pocket".

Deciding that drinking coffee here was perhaps beyond my risk threshold, I left and strolled across to a large branch of a national well-known supermarket chain. There I had a nice cup of coffee in their restaurant, wandered round and collected all the stuff I needed, was greeted by a helpful and efficient checkout operative, and was on my way home in no time.

Of course, you will probably have guessed (if you are brave enough to have stuck with it this far) that the preceding is all a huge fabrication. Or, at least, it's partly a fabrication - and may just serve to indicate how stupid things can get in our modern, high-tech, shop-on-line society. In fact, last week I did...

  • ...try to buy a camera battery from a specialist online store where I had to register before I could go to the checkout, but they didn't tell me they had no stock until I placed the order.
  • ...spend half an hour on an office equipment Web site finding all the odd bits I needed, then was faced with an error message at the checkout and an empty basket.
  • ...visit a blog site that told me I was using an insecure browser (Internet Explorer), and that I should be using Firefox or Opera. And when I tried to submit a comment, discovered that I had to read and type the letters in some weird image with no alternative option for visually-impaired users.
  • ...end up on Amazon.co.uk, where I got all the stuff I needed. And they delivered it two days later.

It does seem strange that, after more than ten years, we still seem to be struggling to provide an Internet that works reliably, works in all browsers for all users, and actually makes life easier. People even seem to spend more time worrying about how that CSS border line is "two pixels off", and that some browsers don't "fully support all the standards". It's not hard to see why the big boys in this game continue to grow, while so many others fall by the wayside. OK, so it is hard to get right, especially for small sites with limited resources. Perhaps the answer does lie "in the cloud" with "Software plus Services" (S+S).

So would you trust some outside organization to provide all the services your business (or hobby Web site) needs? In my previous life as a creator of retail software and purveyor of IT services, I always said that I would provide my own infrastructure and services to make sure it did what I wanted, was always available, was secure, and was under my control. I run my own Exchange Server, public DNS, and Web sites. Yet, looking at my systems, I was surprised to see how much I already outsource. Before becoming a 'Softie, I used Powernet to filter my incoming email. I used LunarPages to host large file downloads and one of my Web sites. I used DigitalRiver to take orders and process payments for my software products. And this blog is hosted on MSDN. One of my colleagues even uses an online source code repository and an online backup facility.

I guess when you think about it, it's hard to see why anyone would start now to create a new general-purpose search engine site to compete with the few guys who already own the market. Why would anyone want to build a new auction site, when it's so easy to use EBay and the like? And small retailers seem to be congregating in their thousands around the in-store shopping services available from Amazon and others. Maybe the future is a relatively small number of "in-cloud" service suppliers, with the majority of sites hosted there.

But why "cloud"? In his blog post "Can We Please Define Cloud Computing?" (which presents some interesting views of the topic) Mark Hopkins mentions that the first time he saw the use of of the cloud symbol was in diagrams of MCI's ATM router mechanism. I remember way back when we were writing our first Internet books (about Internet Explorer 3) at Wrox Press we decided to use a cloud symbol to represent the Internet in our schematics - it seemed the obvious choice and represented stuff that was "going somewhere else, but not sure how". Isn't it amazing how a whole technology can get its name from a PowerPoint shape...

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