Ramblings & ephemera

Many layers of cloud computing, or just one?

From Nicholas Carr’s “Further musings on the network effect and the cloud” (Rough Type: 27 October 2008):

I think O’Reilly did a nice job of identifying the different layers of the cloud computing business – infrastructure, development platform, applications – and I think he’s right that they’ll have different economic and competitive characteristics. One thing we don’t know yet, though, is whether those layers will in the long run exist as separate industry sectors or whether they’ll collapse into a single supply model. In other words, will the infrastructure suppliers also come to dominate the supply of apps? Google and Microsoft are obviously trying to play across all three layers, while Amazon so far seems content to focus on the infrastructure business and Salesforce is expanding from the apps layer to the development platform layer. The degree to which the layers remain, or don’t remain, discrete business sectors will play a huge role in determining the ultimate shape, economics, and degree of consolidation in cloud computing.

Let me end on a speculative note: There’s one layer in the cloud that O’Reilly failed to mention, and that layer is actually on top of the application layer. It’s what I’ll call the device layer – encompassing all the various appliances people will use to tap the cloud – and it may ultimately come to be the most interesting layer. A hundred years ago, when Tesla, Westinghouse, Insull, and others were building the cloud of that time – the electric grid – companies viewed the effort in terms of the inputs to their business: in particular, the power they needed to run the machines that produced the goods they sold. But the real revolutionary aspect of the electric grid was not the way it changed business inputs – though that was indeed dramatic – but the way it changed business outputs. After the grid was built, we saw an avalanche of new products outfitted with electric cords, many of which were inconceivable before the grid’s arrival. The real fortunes were made by those companies that thought most creatively about the devices that consumers would plug into the grid. Today, we’re already seeing hints of the device layer – of the cloud as output rather than input. Look at the way, for instance, that the little old iPod has shaped the digital music cloud.

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