In the digital distribution world there’s really only one player: Steam. Sure there are alternatives like GoG or Desura but they’re essentially niche branches that cater to a specific audience, ones that favour no DRM and modding respectively. The one notable competitor to Steam is Origin, the platform that was built solely for the purpose of distributing EA’s games. Love it or hate it if you want to play one of their games you’re going to have to download Origin and, for people like me who like to review games, this means a non-zero portion of my game library is on there. The only reason it exists is so EA can capture that part of the market that it was losing to Steam although if the words of EA’s EVP Andrew Wilson are to be believed it’s all about creating a better experience for gamers:
“I think your perception is absolutely correct,” Wilson agreed. “I think when I look at the journey that service has taken, I think the transaction component of that service has taken a disproportionate amount of the communication and mindshare of what we really try and provide, and the barrier that that puts in between you and the game that you want to play.”
“We think of Origin, in this new world, as the gracious host of the party. It’s not the center of attention; it’s not the DJ, it’s not the dance director, it’s just a gracious host. It’s someone who greets you at the door and ushers you in to where you want to go and points you in the direction of your friends so that you can go and party with them together. That’s really how we see it.”
Wilson is trying to change the narrative around Origin, pushing it away from the widely held perception that it’s just a money grab (which it is, there’s no doubt about this) and trying to guide it more towards it being something of a value added service. Indeed this is apparently where the future of Origin lies, in adding more features to it that mimic those that have been a major part of Steam for years. He’d like to think of Origin as the place gamers go to play their games because that’s where all their friends are, they’re just the facilitator that allows them to join up. The rest of the interview reads like the ramblings of someone trapped in a fever dream as the world that Origin exists in is so vastly different from the one Wilson paints for it.
I’ll be frank when I say that any game that’s on Origin puts up an instant barrier for me, both as a player and as a reviewer. As a player I know that a game being on Origin means that the vast majority of my friends won’t be playing it because they just can’t be bothered with Origin as a service. Indeed for many recent games that I played on there like Simcity and Crysis 3 I was either alone or one of 2 people on there at any given time despite the long list of friends I have on there. Worse still trying to simple maintenance tasks on it, like backing up game files so I can move them (and the fact that that link is on the Steam forums should tell you something), is a royal pain in the ass which eats away at the time I could be doing what I wanted to be doing: playing the damn game. This is on top of the lack of screenshot functionality which means I have to run FRAPS in order to get the screenshots for review which doesn’t help to endear Origin to me.
It’s not just the simple fact that Origin is yet another piece of software we have to install and maintain, that’s just the beginning, more it’s because Origin is an inferior service, one that we’re locked into using should we want to play an EA published game. It may make the experience for EA games better due to the common installation and patching platform but that’s all it does and it’s not something that couldn’t be accomplished through other, more established channels. It’s akin to all those social services that every game seems to have these days (and as we’ve seen are massive security risks) which are required to play the game.
Gamers don’t want this; it took us years to warm up to Steam and the idea that we’ll somehow cosy up to yet another service that provides next to no benefit for us is a ludicrous proposition. If EA really did understand gamers like they’re purporting to they wouldn’t have bothered with Origin as a digital distribution service in the first place, they would’ve just made it a back end platform that all their games can use should they not want to use Steam’s. EA might think that it’s just a matter of layering on some more services and features but it’s going to need so much more than that before gamers will consider it on the same level as Steam. With Origin’s primary focus being EA games I don’t believe that will ever be achievable, especially when Valve keep going from strength to strength with Steam.
The idea of cloud gaming is a seductive one especially for those of us who lived through the times when upgrading your computer every 12 months was a requirement if you didn’t want to be watching a slide show. Abstracting the hardware requirement away from the user and then letting them play on any device above a certain, extremely low threshold would appear to be the solution to the upgrade and availability issues of dedicated gaming platforms. I’ve long made the case that the end product is something of a niche market, one that I was never quite sure would be viable on a large scale. With the demise of OnLive I could very easily make my point based around that but you can never write off an industry on the failures of the first to markets (see Iridium Communications for proof of this).
Providing even a small cloud gaming service requires some rather massive investments in capital expenditure, especially with the hardware that’s currently available today. For OnLive this meant that only one of their servers could serve one of their users at a time which was terrible from a scalability point as they could never really service that many customers without bleeding money on infrastructure. For cloud gaming services of the future however they might be in luck as both NVIDIA and AMD are working on cloud GPUs that will enable them to get much higher densities than the current 1 to 1 ratio. There’ll still be an upper limit to that’s much lower than most cloud services (which typically serve thousands per server) but at the very least the scalability problem is now an engineering issue rather than a capital one.
The second major challenge that cloud gaming companies face how latency sensitive a good portion of the games market is. Whilst you can get down to very low latency numbers with strategically placed servers you’re still going to be adding a good chunk of input lag on top of any server latency which will be unacceptable for a lot of games. Sure there are titles where this won’t be an issue but cutting off a large section of the market (FPS, RTS, RPGs and any mix of them inbetween) further reduces the viability of any potential cloud gaming service.
In fact for many of the titles that could benefit from a cloud gaming service can already be ported to the web thanks to things like Unity or the use of OpenGL extensions in HTML5. Indeed many of the games that I could see being published on a cloud platform (casual MMORPGs, turn based strategy games, etc.) wouldn’t be much different if they were brought to the traditional web instead. Sure you lose some of the platform agnosticity because of this but you can arguably reach the same number of people using that as you could with a cloud platform.
User expectations are also set rather high for cloud services with many of them being flat fee, unlimited usage scenarios (think Pandora, NetFlix, etc). The current business models for cloud gaming didn’t gel well with this mindset as you were paying for the games you wanted to play (often cheaper than retail, sometimes not) for a limited period of time, akin to a long term rental. Whilst this works for some people most users will expect to be able to pay a flat fee in order to access a catalogue they can then use at their leisure and this has significant ramifications for how publishers and developers will license their games to cloud developers. It’s not an insurmountable problem (the music industry came around eventually so the games industry can’t be far behind) but it does introduce a market dynamic that cloud gaming services have not yet investigated.
With all these things being considered I find it hard to see how cloud gaming services can viable in the near term as whilst all the issues are solvable they all work against delivering something that can turn you a profit. Cloud GPUs, ever increasing quality of Internet connections and the desire by many to migrate completely to cloud based services does mean that there’s a trend towards cloud gaming services becoming viable in the future however the other, fundamental limitations could see those pressures rendered null and void. This is something I’m willing to be proven wrong on though as I’ve invested myself heavily in cloud principles and I know that its capable of great things. Whether cloudifying our gaming experience is one of them is something that I don’t believe is currently feasible however and I don’t see that changing for a while.
IT is one of the few services that all companies require to compete in today’s markets. IT support then is one of those rare industries where jobs are always around to be had, even for those working in entry level positions. Of course this assumes that you put in the required effort to stay current as letting your skills lapse for 2 or more years will likely leave you a generation of technology behind, making employment difficult. This is of course due to the IT industry constantly evolving and changing itself and much like other industries certain jobs can be made completely redundant by technological advancements.
For the past couple decades though the types of jobs you expect to see in IT support have remained roughly the same, save for the specializations brought on by technology. As more and more enterprises came online and technology began to develop a multitude of specializations became available, enabling then generic “IT guys” to become highly skilled workers in their targeted niche. I should I know, just on a decade ago I was one of those generic IT support guys and today I’m considered to be a specialist when it comes to hardware and virtualization. Back when I started my career the latter of those two skills wasn’t even in the vernacular of the IT community, let alone a viable career path.
Like any skilled position though specialists aren’t exactly cheap, especially for small to medium enterprises (SMEs). This leads to an entire second industry of work-for-hire specialists (usually under the term “consultants”) and companies looking to take the pain out of utilizing the technology without having to pay for the expertise to come in house. This isn’t really a surprise (any skilled industry will develop these secondary markets) but with IT there’s a lot more opportunity to automate and leverage economies of scale, more so than any other industry.
This is where Cloud Computing comes in.
The central idea behind cloud computing is that an application can be developed to run on a platform which can dynamically deliver resources to it as required. The idea is quite simple but the execution of it is extraordinarily complicated requiring vast levels of automation and streamlining of processes. It’s just an engineering problem however, one that’s been surmounted by several companies and used to great effect by many other companies who have little wish to maintain their own infrastructure. In essence this is just outsourcing taken to the next level, but following this trend to its logical conclusion leads to some interesting (and, if you’re an IT support worker, troubling) predictions.
For SMEs the cost of running their own local infrastructure, as well as the support staff that goes along with it, can be one of their largest cost centres. Cloud computing and SaaS offers the opportunity for SMEs to eliminate much of the cost whilst keeping the same level of functionality, giving them more capital to either reinvest in the business or bolster their profit margins. You would think then that this would just be a relocation of jobs from one place to another but cloud services utilize much fewer staff due to the economies of scale that they employ, leaving fewer jobs available for those who had skills in those area.
In essence cloud computing eliminates the need for the bulk of skilled jobs in the IT industry. There will still be need for most of the entry level jobs that cater to regular desktop users but the back end infrastructure could easily be handled by another company. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this, pushing back against such innovation never succeeds, but it does call into question those jobs that these IT admins currently hold and where their future lies.
Outside of high tech and recently established businesses the adoption rate of cloud services hasn’t been that high. Whilst many of the fundamentals of the cloud paradigm (virtualization, on-demand resourcing, infrastructure agnostic frameworks) have found their way into the datacenter the next logical step, migrating those same services into the cloud, hasn’t occurred. Primarily I believe this is due to the lack of trust and control in the services as well as companies not wanting to write off the large investments they have in infrastructure. This will change over time of course, especially as that infrastructure begins to age.
For what its worth I still believe that the ultimate end goal will be some kind of hybrid solution, especially for governments and the like. Cloud providers, whilst being very good at what they do, simply can’t satisfy the need of all customers. It is then highly likely that many companies will outsource routine things to the cloud (such as email, word processing, etc) but still rely on in house expertise for the customer applications that aren’t, and probably will never be, available in the cloud. Cloud computing then will probably see a shift in some areas of specialization but for the most part I believe us IT support guys won’t have any trouble finding work.
We’re still in the very early days of cloud computing and its effects on the industry are still hard to judge. There’s no doubt that cloud computing has the potential to fundamentally change the way the world does IT services and whatever happens those of us in IT support will have to change to accommodate it. Whether that comes in the form of reskilling, training or looking for a job in a different industry is yet to be determined but suffice to say that the next decade will see some radical changes in the way businesses approach their IT infrastructure.
In the mere months that it has been released Google+ has managed to accumulate quite the following, grabbing 40 million users. It’s still quite small compared to the current incumbent Facebook (who’s users outnumber Google+ 20 to 1) but that’s an incredible amount of growth, more than any other social network has ever been able to achieve before. Google has finally got it right with this attempt to break into the social networking world and it’s paying off for them in spades. What’s got everyone talking now is where Google is heading, not just with Google+ but also with the rest of their vast service catalogue.
Over the past 6 months or so, ever since co-founder Larry Page took over as CEO of Google, there’s been a rather interesting/worrying trend that’s been developing at Google. For as long as I can remember Google had a habit of experimenting openly with their users, cheerfully opening up access to beta products in order to get the wider public interested in them. However most recently they’ve begun to shutter these types of projects with the first signal that this trend could end coming with the closing down of Google Labs. In the months that followed many of Google’s other ancillary services, like Google Health and Google Power Meter, have been shut down with many more facing the chopping block.
For anyone following Google the writing had been on the wall ever since Page announced back in July that they were going to be focusing more closely on their core services. What’s really interesting however is that the direction that Google’s now heading in is not Page’s thinking alone, but one that was heavily influenced by the late great Steve Jobs. Just before Page took the top job at Google he placed met up with Jobs to get some advice on what he should be doing and it’s easy to see where Page’s motivation for cutting the fat from Google had come from:
Jobs didn’t mince words when Page arrived at Jobs’ Palo Alto home. He told Page to build a good team of lieutenants. In his first week as Google’s CEO, Page reshuffled his management team to eliminate bureaucracy. Jobs also warned Page not to let Google get lazy or flabby.
“The main thing I stressed was to focus,” Jobs told Isaacson about his conversation with Page. “Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up. It’s now all over the map. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest because they’re dragging you down. They’re turning you into Microsoft. They’re causing you to turn out adequate products that are adequate but not great.”
Just over a week ago Google announced that another 5 services (Buzz, Code Search, University Research, iGoogle Social and Jaiku) would be shut down in favour of the features of those applications being taken over by Google+. Indeed any Google service that has some sort of social bent is getting integrated under the Google+ umbrella, with many of the sharing features in things like Google Reader being moved out to Google+. For Google this is done to both encourage people to use their still nascent social network as well as reducing their large application portfolio. Integrating everything they can into Google+ may seem like a desperate move to try and grab more market share away from Facebook but Google is betting a lot on the Google+ platform, and I believe it will pay off for them.
The momentum that Google+ has gained over the past few months has shown that Google can do social and do it well. After nailing that down it makes a lot of sense to combine services, especially those ones that are considered core to a social network, under the Google+ umbrella as that builds out the product and makes it far more enticing to end users. It’s sad to see some other services get completely shut down but that does open up the market to start-ups who can take up the slack that Google leaves behind as they increase their focus on their core products.
Security is one of those things that many people put aside when developing a new product since it’s one of those things that doesn’t get you any closer to launching and adds no face value for your end users. For many people it’s usually the last thing on their mind until they have an incident, and then afterwards it becomes the top priority (as we’ve seen with Sony recently). With the average data breach running a company something in the order of $7 million you can see why a lot of companies go belly up once they’ve been hit and that’s why I still find it frustrating when new start-ups and companies put security on the backburner. They’re really shooting themselves in the foot.
It’s not like basic security is that hard either. I’ve said in the past that SSL isn’t that hard and I stand by those comments, especially if you’re building something on any of the popular frameworks. SSL is just the beginning though as you can still fall prey to security problems like SQL injection and cross-site scripting attacks even if your site is using SSL for the more sensitive aspects. Again though since the vast majority of new web applications are built on some kind of framework most of this leg work is taken care of for you, as long as you make a token effort to implement them.
I think why I get so uppity about this is because some of the most secure institutions, like banks, fail to implement security on the same level that others, say game developers, manage to do quite well and surprisingly cheaply. The best example of this would have to be Blizzard who implemented their authenticator program to combat the constant problem of accounts being hacked. Compare this to the 3 or 4 banks I’ve had dealings with over the past couple years, none of which have offered me such a service, and you can begin to understand why I’m a little annoyed that my World of Warcraft character’s epics are more secure than the cash I use to pay for them.
It’s not all bad news however as the era of the smart phone has made it possible to replicate two factor authentication quite cheaply. Both Google and Facebook have now made it possible to login to their services using two factor authentication via an application on your smart phone. Whilst I’m sure the vast majority of people will not bother (until after something bad happens of course) it still shows that they’re at least thinking in the right direction, unlike many other services which just don’t bother.
What really surprises me is that how this isn’t a commodity service yet. The idea behind two factor authentication is simple, you have to know something (your password) and have something (your smartphone) in order to gain access to the system with the specified user account. Realistically the password problem is already solved and the second factor is really just a simple random number generator that’s seeded by a particular value that both you and the server know. Couple that with decent time synching (easily done on any phone with GPS) and your well on your way to better security. Sure there’s a bit more too it than that but since I’ve been considering doing this as a weekend project ever since I thought of it should give you a clue to just how easy it is to put decent security in an online service.
I’m hardly an expert at this whole security stuff, hell I bet if you hacked away at any of my projects for 10 minutes you’d find some awesome exploit, but even in this day and age of malware/crimeware/scamware I find it surprising just how lax some people can be we it comes to rudimentary security measures. You’re never going to be able to stop the most determined of intruders but it’s the casual hacker tourists that you want to keep out. Realistically you only need to be more secure than the next guy they have a go at and judging by the terrible level of security present online these days that’s not going to be too hard. So you developers of online web services you have no excuses for not at least attempting to put security into your product and should I catch you sending my login details in clear text over the Internet you can be sure I’ll be the first in line to blast you for making such mistakes.
Yeah that’s right, I’m going to blog about you and there’s nothing you can do about it… TAKE IT!