The cloud is not a computer

Some computing processes work better when left on the ground.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

My hat goes off to Preston Monroe, the developer of iCopy, an online service that adds cut and paste functionality to the iPhone's browser and e-mail apps. As you probably know, Apple's handheld computer bizarrely omits this feature.

Cut-and-paste on the iPhone, via a Web service. iCopy video

iCopy is a clever hack that lets you select text or a link from a Web page and paste it into another page, or an e-mail. It gets around the lack of iPhone-native copy and paste by sending selected text to a temporary online repository when you "copy," and retrieving it when you "paste." In operation, it's a horrible kludge--it requires a lot of Web page switching and too many visits to the iCopy site to do a simple copy/paste operation. But the fact that Monroe figured out a way to make the Web a giant clipboard in the sky is pretty cool.

iCopy illustrates that while the Web can be employed to do a lot of things that we've formerly thought of as belonging solely in the domain of local computing, it doesn't mean we should do so.

I edit a blog about Web 2.0 apps. It's my job to push the vision of Web-based products and cloud-based resources. But even I realize that local processing has a place. I find it curious that many people I talk to think Microsoft's rumored Midori project, for instance, is a "cloud OS." While there's no question that an operating system written from the ground up today should use Internet resources in a more native fashion than most OSes do today, the change should be seen as one of degree, not replacement.

The Internet can be used to deliver apps and updates, for storage and backup, for social networking and person-to-person communications, and other functions. But for the moment and the near future, you need local processing to maintain speed and robustness of applications, and native graphics capability to present the interface. One of the reasons Web 2.0 apps can work well today is because today's browsers have deep user interface and graphics capabilities, and because they run on powerful local PCs. Many popular Web apps--like Google Docs and Microsoft Live Search Maps--rely on capabilities that were simply not present in PCs only a few years ago.

That's why I continue to refer to Web operating systems like G.ho.st as science fair projects. They're really cool, and they provide glimpses of the evolution of personal computing. Much of what we do on a PC today can be done over the Web. But a lot cannot, at least not well. To deliver the best experience--the best user interface, reliability, collaboration, and so on--smart developers don't force all their apps either onto the Web or the local PC. Today's architectures make distributing applications among platforms easier than ever. They even make it possible for apps to adapt to their environment and redistribute themselves depending on circumstance (see Google Gears). The really interesting upcoming apps and operating systems will not just be hybrid (online/offline), but adaptive.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in how copy and paste might work on the iPhone, check out Proximi's Magicpad, a text editing app that offers cut and paste controls. Proximi has also published video proposing a user interface for general cut and paste on the iPhone. This is the work Apple should have done. Although for all we know, the company has done it already, but in secret.