Print in the Cloud

Nicholas Carr has been writing in interesting ways about Cloud Computing. One of the key vectors in this meme is the idea that devices, machines, desktop applications, software itself gets virtualised.

As the cost of computing power and storage capacity has continued its decades-long freefall, it’s become possible to turn more and more hardware into software code – to use a single powerful computer to run many virtual machines…….. Virtualization simply turns the hardwired instructions into code and gets rid of the physical machinery. That not only saves a lot of cash, it makes the radical automation of formerly manual IT processes possible. From Turing’s Machine to the Computing Cloud

‘Virtualisation’ is another manifestation of that old computing trend for processes to become more abstract and more generic, and more efficient and more scaleable because they are more generic. Sixty years ago a computer was programmed by flipping switches and setting valves. Once there were operating systems the machine settings were left to look after themselves. The history of computing is a story of processes becoming more virtual and more automated at pretty much the same rate as the cost at which hardware falls.

Books are now in the process of being ‘virtualised’. Print is being sucked into the cloud. The Google Book Search project is virtualising libraries and the Exact Editions process works in a parallel fashion for individual publications: magazine issues and books. If you pushed me as to exactly where the digital issue of one of our magazines now is, I would be hard pressed to answer: “On some Rackspace servers in Texas or in a building near Heathrow” — if you really must have a location. But ‘it’ is ‘backed up’ elsewhere in the cloud and our process works across a group of servers, so one is really much happier with the idea that our magazines now have virtualised locations, ie specific urls, one for each page, and for each page in a style of viewing. The virtual address of a digital magazine is a much more important feature than its physical address. The magazine issue is no longer a downloadable file it is not resident on the hard disk of a PC, it is now part of a database system which communicates with other web applications.

For me, one of the most interesting and hardest to comprehend consequences of this turn towards abstraction and virtualisation of digital print is that all print will be treated in the same way. Books, magazines, newspapers, packaging, instruction manuals, court reports, patents and of course advertisements….These virtual digital-formerly-known-as-print objects will soon be “talking to each other” whilst we are nonchalantly searching them.