The Cloud With The Silver Lining

In his latest Thursday Night Insight, Oliver Truman looks in detail at a creeping trend in our personal and business lives that is starting to have a profound impact on the way we interact with technology.

Every now and then an innovation comes along that makes you sit up and take notice. Just such an event happened to me (and, I’m sure, thousands of other geekily-minded folks like myself) last week, with the unveiling of OnLive – A new video gaming service in the US, which promises to change the shape of the computer games industry forever.

I should perhaps declare at this point that, contrary to appearances, I am not tremendously into computer gaming – I freely admit that the last (and indeed first) games console I owned was a venerable Nintendo Entertainment System in the early 1990s. The reason OnLive caught my eye lies not in the graphics nor the gameplay on offer, rather my interest was captured because it offers one of the most transparent and obvious applications yet of the phenomenon of “cloud computing”.

With OnLive, computer games are no longer installed or run on the end user’s machine – this is all left to a powerful web server housed in a central location. Instead, the gamer effectively watches a live, high-definition video stream of what is running on this server using their Internet connection. This means even a low-end computer (or television set, with a small adaptor) can run the most demanding of games. No installation or downloading time is wasted, and customers can dip in and out of a whole array of different titles on a subscription-based model.

This essential concept – that application software or user data is no longer stored locally, but remotely somewhere in the “cloud” that is the Internet – is what lies behind cloud computing. And its effect stretches far beyond the world of computer games
Increasingly, office-productivity programs such as word processing, data manipulation and database software lives online rather than on our machines: Google Apps is perhaps the most famous example of this, potentially facilitating access to all your documents and files from any computer in the world with a web browser and an Internet connection.

Moreover, many CRM systems are now web-based, allowing sales teams instant access to client and prospect data, wherever they may be at the time. In a business context, data becomes pervasive and instantly available, in any place and at any time.

And away from the sober world of business, cloud computing also allows for services such as Spotify to develop. Spotify is an online music streaming service that allows free, instantaneous access to virtually any song or album from the last 30 years. The storage burden is no longer upon the user’s machine, but is instead taken on by a huge server farm out there in the ether.

So how is all this affecting the world of market research?

Perhaps the most obvious projection of “the cloud” on the research industry has been in the development of online research techniques. Online surveys, which are increasingly becoming the methodology-de-jour in both consumer and business-to-business markets, are now fairly well established, and it would seem strange to highlight this as a new development.

What is different is the melding of the online world with the offline. This is most clearly seen in the latest generation of mixed-methodology data collection software, which allows the simultaneous collection of data online, via the telephone or even face-to-face. This offline element has traditionally been managed by internal systems, run on market research agencies’ own servers that exist quite separately from the world outside.

Confirmit Horizons, of which B2B International is the launch customer, is perhaps the most significant of this new breed of data collection software. All the data collection, sample management and data storage is handled by secure, dedicated hardware housed in purpose-built data centres.

All this allows for the seamless and instantaneous integration of data collected from anywhere – whether it is online, face-to-face or via the telephone. Results and analysis can then be fed back to our clients live as the data is rolling in.

In the realm of qualitative research, just as social networking websites are arguably electronic projections of our personal lives into the online domain, so online focus groups and online communities now complement and enhance the face-to-face tools we once relied on.

In short, the cloud is important because it will affect all of our daily lives in so many ways in the future – Not just to play PacMan against your mates (or whatever it is the kids are playing nowadays).

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