Of course the reason why it’s so sunny is that “The Cloud” is not on the horizon. For those who have missed all the discussions floating around about Cloud computing lately, you can get a rundown on a good post from David Sasaki here. You can read what I feel to be a more meandering one here. There are plenty of others floating around as it’s about the only thing people have found to be worthwhile to talk about lately other than updates to the Twitter logo.
While it’s definitely true that we are shifting the way our data is stored, all of these talks miss a few points. First, there’s the point that The Cloud is actually nothing new. Centralized storage and computing has been around in some form or another since we started using mainframes in the late 1960’s. The model of how the interaction between end user and centralized core has changed around a great deal over the years, but it’s nothing new. The technology has definitely evolved, but the way everyone is talking about it, you’d think they finally figured out some way to combine jamón and Zinfandel in to one megadrink that has all the best qualities of both.
The other big point missed in all this Cloud business is how it’s screwing the rest of the world outside of well, the US, and maybe Europe. This is the problem in how when people who proselytize a new technology don’t know understand the underpinnings of it, they often miss big gaping holes in the actual implementation of it. You see, there are several cornerstones to all things Cloud that make realtime server interactions possible. One of those is AJAX. Another is low latency. Yet another is high bandwidth. And yet one more is a stable connection that isn’t affected by power variance. There are others as well, but for the sake of discussion, I find these to be the key ones.
When it comes to a continent like Africa, these are all huge issues and they act as massive barriers to people there, impairing their ability to actually use all the benefits of Cloud-based systems. So, just as new cables are being deployed around the continent so that they will be allowed the same level of access that a great swath of the world currently enjoys, this new level of entry is being introduced. But let’s look at why each of these issues a problem.

AJAX

This is what makes Google Maps work. It also is what makes GMail and Twitter work. Even Maneno makes use of it to some extent. Used properly it can actually work quite well to improve user experience in low bandwidth settings as it reduces overall page load volume. But it’s often the case that it’s not used in this fashion. It’s used to make rich applications which don’t work well on older browsers and there are literally millions of installations of old browsers on old machines that won’t work well with AJAX. Obviously, the simple solution around this is to upgrade the browser (as that’s free) and hope that the machine can be bumped up with it. The only issue, is that even with the client being able to handle how an AJAX-rich and Cloud-interacted system is built, there is still the next issue.

High Latency

This is a killer. You can’t work around it because it is physically inherent problem. When a user is thousands of kilometers from the Cloud host, they see things load slower or not at all, even if they’re on a fast connection. Hell, even something basic like the Google homepage takes three seconds to load from Accra, Ghana when it’s instant in the US. This is a problem with distance, but it’s also a problem with DNS lookups as so much of this infrastructure is centralized in the US.
This is the reason an iPhone is so powerful. It has constant access to low latency, high bandwidth connection, and is near the servers. Take that away and an iPhone is just a very expensive, low battery life phone. Why do you think they’ve wanted to control the countries to which they are released?
The solution to all of this is a massive investment in infrastructure (primarily in the form of more datacenters and DNS root servers in Africa) which will come with time. Until then, high latency blows the Cloud away from Africa.

High Bandwidth

Obviously it’s getting better in Africa, but as shown with the previous two points, it’s not the magic bullet to use Cloud applications. It does help with current website designs, which is why widespread Clouding is so treacherous in that it takes messes with the new access slowly being opened up to East Africa.
There still is a problem with the interior of Africa at they use a lot of satellite connections and again, it’s going to be an issue of infrastructure build up.

Stable Connections

You can’t have a connection that goes all over the place in terms of bandwidth speed as it hosing client-server interactions. This is tied in a great deal to a) not using VSAT connections and b) having a stable power grid. Much like High Bandwidth issues, it’s part of the issues in infrastructure.

Conclusions

The Cloud is predicated on having an “always on” connection to function. While it’s fine to design a web architecture that centrally stores user data and handles all the heavy lifting when it comes to processing, the issue of access is going to block off Africa and whole lot of the rest of the world because of this. Designers (if they can be nudged to care) need to build applications with this in mind for probably the next 5-10 years. It’s building in “graceful degradation” to a system, which is something I think a lot of us have gotten lazy to do. Google hasn’t though and they build their systems to pull back features if it looks like the end user won’t be able to make good use of them. I think it’s part of the reason that Google stands the best chance to get a solid footing in the African market, which is going to explode over the next decade. If you want it, follow their lead.
The sun is shining in Africa