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Distributed Computing Is Still a Lousy Idea

November 08, 2001|Dave Wilson

Part of the concept behind our commitment to free speech is the belief that people with good ideas can shout down people with bad ideas. Though this process keeps stupid ideas from being implemented, it does not destroy them.

That's because lousy ideas are immortal. No matter how many times they get tossed off the stage, bad ideas just wait for the chance to sneak back during open microphone night.

Cutting taxes will reduce a deficit. Religious fanatics could be willing to negotiate. Wouldn't Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis be great in a television series? These are all ideas that have been proved wrong, yet there are still people promoting them.

Which brings us to the point of today's column. Yahoo recently conducted an online survey asking whether people would be willing to pay for access to applications such as a word processing package that would reside not on their computers but on Yahoo's computers.

This is called distributed computing, and it's a really bad idea that just won't go away.

Networked applications, such as the sort of thing Yahoo is considering, just aren't as reliable as keeping all your stuff on your hard drive. You might blow a hard drive on your computer every couple of years, but anybody who uses the Internet knows that a couple of times a day, you won't be able to get into a Web site. Maybe it's network congestion. Maybe it's a bad server at the other end. Maybe it's just those sunspots acting up again. But we all know it happens, and when it does, people who rely on distributed computing get hosed.

"In the corporate world, distributed computing makes a lot of sense," said Pete Conner, senior vice president and chief tech officer for Primitive Logic Inc., a consulting company that works on those sorts of issues.

"But it's different in a consumer environment," he said. "This works best on a dedicated network. The infrastructure just isn't in place yet to make this work for civilians."

There are theoretical advantages to distributed computing, of course, which is one reason this concept refuses to go away. Leaving data and applications loaded up on a remote computer means you have access to that work environment from any computer with an Internet connection. Whether you're at work, at home or in a foreign land, if you have access to a networked computer, you can get your work done.

It's a great idea in theory. But it doesn't work.

The lack of reliability we've all experienced on the Internet means that someday you won't be able to connect to the computer with your data on it. This is why we drag around laptops. It's not that we're stupid. It's that losing access to critical data at a critical time can, well, precipitate a crisis.

There are other issues that relate to letting other people store your stuff for you. For instance, there's the security issue. Microsoft's Passport service, designed to be a universal key to Web sites, was taken offline Nov. 1 after experts found a flaw that gave access to the digital wallet you're supposed to use to buy stuff on Web sites that use the Passport system. Oops.

In contrast, keeping your information on your computer makes privacy and security easier, assuming you're following precautions such as keeping sensitive stuff encrypted.

Yahoo says it is considering whether to offer significant distributed services beyond its Web-based e-mail system and related tools.

Tech support people love the concept because putting a stupid box on your desk means they don't have to deal with users installing software that messes up things on the desktop machine.

But right now, that's not an idea whose time has come.


Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist. He can be reached at

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