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Cloud Surfing

By Thomas Koulopoulos

(Bibliomotion, 254 pages, $29.10)

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*****

In the past few years, we have been assaulted by a new technological term: the cloud. Perhaps the term has passed you by (like a cloud). Perhaps you noticed, but were puzzled. Perhaps you have embraced the metaphor, but still have some hesitations about exactly what the cloud involves.

Although the term "cloud computing" dates back to 1997, it became prominent in 2006 when it was used to describe the new model of "software as service," such as Salesforce.com, which allows companies the chance to use its software through the Internet rather than having programs directly on a computer. If you use Gmail or Hotmail, your e-mail is housed somewhere in the cloud. Some day, that might be how you use Microsoft Word: It won't reside on your computer, but in the cloud.

If the cloud sounds like just a catchy synonym for the Internet, technology consultant Thomas Koulopoulos says you're missing the point. The cloud extends beyond the Net to mobile devices, sensors, radio, satellite, and other forms of connective technology. "The cloud creates intelligence through connections," he writes in Cloud Surfing.

He argues that the single greatest contributor to global growth, prosperity, and social and political change over the past 200 years has not been the acceleration of technology, or improvements in health care, transportation, communications, globalization or education. Instead, it is the phenomenon that underlies all of those: the dramatic increase in connections.

An advantage is that the cloud grows as your needs grows – it's elastic. You can invest the resources you need in it today and if, down the road, you need more, it will be there for you to buy.

For example, when Animoto – which creates high-quality video montages – started, the founders figured that at peak demand they might need 50 computer servers. After just three days they needed 3,500 servers. They could get that capacity easily from the cloud.

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The cloud reduces your risk if you are starting a new venture; you don't have to worry about over-investing or under-investing in computing capacity. "By scaling to actual success rather than trying to predict the success of your offering, you significantly alter the relationship between risk and investment by capping your downside but leaving your upside unlimited," he says.

Because some services offered through the cloud can provide temporary workers across the globe, that element of business also becomes elastic.

He stresses that the key to the cloud is the data, not the devices. The reason companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Google are staking claims in the cloud is that they see gold in the behavioural insights the cloud can provide.

"The reason Google gives away as much technology as it does, allowing you to store vast amounts of data on its servers – for example, Gmail and YouTube – and to communicate through its devices – for example, Android-powered smartphones – is that the data it is capturing about your behaviours, interests, and patterns is infinitely more valuable than any amount of hardware and software they could sell," he notes.

He points out that Gmail gives you a free e-mail account in return for its chance to pitch ads from third parties that might be relevant to your messages. But if he were to correspond with you from his private, non-Gmail account, Google can analyze that as well.

"So now Google knows not only about you, which you have tacitly agreed to, but also about me and anyone else you communicate with via e-mail. The same is true of your buying habits on Amazon or iTunes as well as all of the data about how you use the devices that connect you to the cloud, such as your smartphone," he writes.

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General Motors, through a service called GM-Relay Ride that is part of OnStar package, is gathering information on driver behaviours and patterns.

It might seem risky to put your personal information and your company's data in the cloud. But Mr. Koulopoulos insists that view is like hiding your money under your mattress instead of putting it in the bank. He bases his argument on the concept of a digital locker, which you would own and control, rather than having information about you scattered through various repositories on the Web. But the one attempt at a digital locker, by Microsoft, failed; and although he dances around the topic, showing the advantages of having your digital remains live on after you, the temptation after reading this section is to want to hide your digital information under your mattress.

However, the cloud is with us, enveloping us. It helps if we understand the implications, and this book offers a good start, with chapters on the mobile cloud, as well as innovation, commerce, work, and learning. It's a high-level look, philosophical in many ways, but still with enough details for the everyday business person.

Postscript

In these turbulent times, it helps if you and your company can bounce back. In Resilience (Free Press, 323 pages, $29.99), global innovation specialist Andrew Zolli and journalist Ann Marie Healy take you through the growing research on how to construct a more resilient world.

Marketing consultant Jonah Sachs argues that those who tell the best stories will rule the future, and he shows how to do that in Winning the Story Wars (Harvard Business Review Press, 264 pages, $27).

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The father-and-son team of Bob and Gregg Vanourek set out tools to be a better leader and build an ethical, enduring organization in Triple Crown Leadership (McGraw-Hill, 302 pages, $29.95).

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