Is the cloud a trap? Richard Stallman, stalwart defender of free and open software, recently recently argued against the cloud mentality and made some valid points with regard to privacy, control, and security of personal information. “If you use a proprietary program or somebody else’s web server, you’re defenseless. You’re putty in the hands of whoever developed that software,” he writes.

It’s hard to argue with the trust required when using any modern software title. We’ve all lost that mid-term paper at 2 a.m., or had credit card numbers stolen from an online retailer, or worse. But trust is required to some degree in the modern world, whether it involves using an online service or maintaining our own machines. Imagine being forced to know how to replace the transmission just to own an automobile. It’s impractical because it would require specialized and costly training and tools to achieve.

Stallman’s point is well taken. Blind trust in a cloud provider isn’t the solution. He recommends that users keep their information in their own hands “rather than hand it over to a third party.” In a perfect world, this would be easy. We’d have secure gateways allowing us to store information securely at our premises, complete with hardened doors that allow only the owner access. Perhaps once we’ve perfected the science of storing our data in our DNA, we we will have the ultimate in data security. But in the meantime we’re forced to either carry it with us to use when needed or rely on cloud providers to give us access.

Look closer to find clarity

Stallman has remained true to his open software philosophy that proprietary systems are bad because they keep users locked into systems and lead to the path of planned obsolescence. But is it all hype? There is some truth to the idea that many cloud technologies might be more cloud and less technology. Marketing is used to generating buzz and desire for a product, but often times at the expense of clarity in message. Early cloud commercials meant to enlighten consumers on the term probably did more damage than educating. Coming from an IT background I’m familiar with cynicism toward the newest trends, but with time the cloud has gained a toehold. The fact is, nothing short of total open source nirvana will satisfy some stalwarts, but the rest of the world must live somewhere between the need to understand the car enough to drive it and display sense enough to leave the maintenance to a professional. Not only does it free us for more important work, it promotes jobs and innovation.

The pursuit of success drives innovation just as much as it can drive scurrilous behavior. Out of this success has come many great technologies, some free and some not so free. I’m a big proponent of open source and I’ll keep on using it where it makes sense, but not when it doesn’t — that’s when I will have to use some measure of trust and common sense.

Where the rubber meets the road

I used to drive a car with a manual transmission out of the conviction it was a superior system and gave me the most control. One day, I wanted to hold my wife’s hand on a trip, and couldn’t because it was on the stick shift. The convenience of freeing up my right hand became too great to warrant holding steadfast to my “manual transmissions are better” mindset. True, I gave up control for convenience, but sometimes that’s what we call innovation. It frees up our hands to do more, something the cloud can do too — when it’s done right.

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What hesitations do you have about using the cloud? What advantages do you see in making the leap? How can you take the right precautions to realize the benefits of cloud technology?