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.