Cloud computing: is Google widening the digital divide?

Recent announcements by Google make me think, that the company might go down a path that would ultimately mean more inequality, a worse position for developing countries and a widening digital divide.

I’m referring specifically to Chrome OS, Google’s new operating system, and the announcement that Google would dump Google Gears, a service that makes it possible to use services like GoogleDocs offline. In both cases, Google emphasized the importance of cloud computing as opposed to working offline. The idea is that all data, i.e. your spread sheets, your documents, your photos, get stored on remote servers (a.k.a. “the cloud”) and none of it on your machine.

Has Google lost touch with reality?

The Letter Writer, India

For most people in the world “cloud computing” is simply not realistic. Photo: Rita Banerji

Cloud computing is a good idea if you live in an urban area in a first world country where wifi connections are ubiquitous and where many people are using computers as little more than terminals. But that’s simply not the case in most parts of the world. Earlier this year, I visited a youth camp in rural Italy. Short of getting on a Sat phone, there was no way to get online. And this was northern Italy, not northern Ethiopia!

Access to technology is key

I think that access to information technology is crucial and can make a real difference in many developing countries. But in most developing countries, internet access is really expensive. I am concerned that by requiring people to be online in order to do things that could be done offline, we are making it harder for the world’s poor to get access to this technology.

Some advantages

Of course cloud computing would have some potential advantages for people living in developing countries as well. If you write all your documents in internet cafes, you’ll use many different computers and being able to store everything at a central location is certainly helpful. Additionally, if you ever worked in a country where  electricity is fickle, you’ll certainly appreciate anything that saves your work automatically. But there is a difference between being able to access and save information online and being required to do so.

The risk: a widening technology gap

Obviously, cloud computing is still a long way off from replacing offline computing. I’m sure that OpenOffice will continue to be available, as will pirated copies of MS Office. But the fact that Google completely dismisses offline use twice within a year, worries me. I’m worried that Google will focus its energy exclusively on users who can afford to be online 24/7 and that this is where innovation will take place. If that happens, then it will become even harder for young people in developing countries to catch up.

  • Kel

    Actually, Google Chrome OS would have the option to save information to the cloud and to offline. Google may be dropping Google gears, but only because HTML5 has the ability to store information locally.

    • Thank you very much for clarifying this. From what I had read I was under the impression that this wouldn't be the case. But I only read news reports and no technical documentation, which no doubt would have explained this. Thanks again for taking the time to clear this matter up.

  • KendraK

    Hi Tim,

    Did you watch the Google video that covered the "perfect storm" of platform convergence? What Google is predicting is that mobile phones and tablets are going to converge to mobile based platforms and be the primary access to the cloud. They are actually looking at the high use and sales of mobile during bad economic times.

    Curious if you think that with mobile diving deep into Africa, this form of expansion is the most possible route? The new iteration plans for One Laptop Per Child is a tablet. So it would require "data plans" opening up. Hindering, helping or no difference in your opinion?

    • Mobile phones are already very useful people in many developing countries.

      – In India farmers can receive information about the current local market prices for goods in the surrounding towns so that they can make better decisions about where to sell their produce (via SMS)

      – In parts of Africa mobile phones allow people who have never owned a bank account to save and to wireless transfer money (via SMS). Mobile phone credit can simply be used as money in shops – like a cash card. This is huge because it allows people to save money.

      If this is a topic that interest you I recommend that you take a look at http://mobileactive.org/

      However, I think there is a big difference between SMS-based services that can be established comparatively quickly and easily and wireless internet access through mobile phone. (I'm not techy enough to know what the difference, is but considering how difficult and expensive it can be to get wireless internet in Europe I assume it isn't that simple.)

      I think (and hope) we will see a lot of new mobile phone based tools that can help people in developing countries. But I think that the kind of connection you'd need for cloud computing is still many years in the future unless a company like Google take a few billions and simply decided to do it, screw the ROI.

    • I found an interesting, somehow related post today:
      http://www.thomascrampton.com/indonesia/indonesia

      Thomas Crampton talks about that Blackberries are more popular in Indonesia than iPhones, partly because of high internet costs.

  • Good Site on Cloud Computing and SaaS – We are periodically looking for good blog articles
    related to SaaS. Will be back to review more information on your blog.

    Keep up the great work!

    Thanks