Business, Economics and Jobs

Taiwan: Cloud computing storms Asia


TAIPEI, Taiwan — He spoke into the microphone quickly, in a clipped tone, as spectators in a crowded conference hall hung on his words.

His presence here was akin to that of an Olympian god, deigning to descend from the heavens (Silicon Valley) for an inspection tour of Vulcan's workshop: the Far East, where most of the world's gee-whiz tech gadgets — handsets, iPads, e-readers, netbooks —  are actually made.

He was here in part to preach the latest gospel from America. He was here to preach The Cloud.

"Cloud computing will drive a massive wave of innovation in personal computing, and Taiwan is going to be at the center of that," said Google vice president for product management Sundar Pichai, speaking with the doubt-free air of a TV evangelist for the high-tech set. "That's why it's very exciting to be here. We need partners in the 'ecosystem', and the pace of innovation here is incredible."

He said his firm has made "big bets on cloud computing," and his tone said he was confident of coming up aces. "The web is going to get much more powerful, and that's the heart of cloud computing."

Yes, a typhoon of "cloud computing" hype has reached Asia. Never mind that few people here (or elsewhere) seem to understand what it means, or that the term is thrown around so carelessly.

Whatever it is, the tech elite here seems to agree it's important — and Taiwanese firms had better get the new religion, fast. Taiwan's government recently announced an ambitious plan to promote "cloud computing." South Korea's did the same late last year.

Broadly speaking, cloud computing refers to the trend of delivering software, storage and other services over the internet. That's a shift from the old PC-and-local network computing model, where documents, software and operating systems live on each individual machine, and firms maintain their own servers and tech staff.

In tech-speak, it's called moving stuff "outside the firewall."

In the brave new cloud computing world of the future, gadgets and devices will increasingly function solely as a connection to the Internet and content delivery platform. Software, storage, even
operating systems will run remotely from vast data centers, or server farms.

If that future comes to pass, whoever is good at building and operating those data centers, and the customized servers that run them, stands to thrive.

At the revival-meeting-slash-cloud-computing-forum in Taipei earlier this month, Taiwanese fretted about whether they'd be able to adapt. Western participants tried to reassure them of the Good News: With The Cloud, they'd have more opportunities than ever to make gadgets for the world's eager consumers.

"You have built the finest electronics manufacturing infrastructure the world has ever known," said Tudor Brown, President of ARM Holdings, which makes the processors used in mobile gadgets like the iPhone. "Cloud computing brings opportunities for a much bigger market, as you use that infrastructure to continue to produce these products and ship them around the world."

"Your competitiveness should be increased, not decreased, by the shift to a more flexible cloud computing world," he insisted, after a round of teeth-gnashing from Taiwanese panelists over their self-defeating price wars and other shortcomings.

Like most of the fads out of Silicon Valley, "cloud computing" is a catchphrase with an uncertain shelf-life. But industry observers are surprised at its staying power to date.

"We went through Internet hype and crash a decade ago," said Frank Gillett, principal analyst at Forrester Research, in a phone interview. "Then we went through a smaller sort of excitement about
'virtualization.' And starting about two years ago, we got 'cloud fever' — and the fever has persisted longer than I thought it would. The amount of hype is kind of silly."

One of the fiercest critics of cloud hype has been Oracle's Larry Ellison, who said in a famous 2008 rant, "the computer industry is the only industry that's more fashion-driven than women's fashion ... I have no idea what anyone's talking about, I mean it's really just gibberish ... what the hell is cloud computing?"

Gillett says cloud computing is a mixed bag. Part of it is just using a trendy new phrase for old services -- an old-wine-in-new-bottles job that some call "cloud-washing" (one might also say "bullcloud.") Using Gmail qualifies as cloud computing. So does using Flickr, or any web-based software services.

But part of it is a genuinely new way of thinking about computing that could, over the next decade, change our relations with gadgets and Internet services, he said. Whereas now people buy a gadget — be it a smart-phone or netbook or tablet computer — and then choose what services to access with that device, in the cloud-computing future it may well be the other way around.

"The level of integration between devices and services will increase, and the decision-making sequence will be flipped on its head, from devices to services, both for individuals and companies," said Gillett.

For businesses, Gillett says cloud computing is most promising in areas like web conferencing, data warehousing and business intelligence. Firms are likely to farm out those areas rather than try
to maintain expensive in-house capabilities.

So are the Taiwanese convinced? Convinced enough for the government to launch a $720 million campaign about it. Because who knows?

Those Silicon Valley preachers may turn out to be right.

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