Some accounts trace the birth of the term to 2006, when large companies such as Google and Amazon began using “cloud computing” to describe the new paradigm in which people are increasingly accessing software, computer power, and files over the Web instead of on their desktops.
But Technology Review tracked the coinage of the term back a decade earlier, to late 1996, and to an office park outside Houston. At the time, Netscape’s Web browser was the technology to be excited about and the Yankees were playing Atlanta in the World Series. Inside the offices of Compaq Computer, a small group of technology executives was plotting the future of the Internet business and calling it “cloud computing.”
Their vision was detailed and prescient. Not only would all business software move to the Web, but what they termed “cloud computing-enabled applications” like consumer file storage would become common. For two men in the room, a Compaq marketing executive named George Favaloro and a young technologist named Sean O’Sullivan, cloud computing would have dramatically different outcomes. For Compaq, it was the start of a $2-billion-a-year business selling servers to Internet providers. For O’Sullivan’s startup venture, it was a step toward disenchantment and insolvency.
Cloud computing still doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. But its use is spreading rapidly because it captures a historic shift in the IT industry as more computer memory, processing power, and apps are hosted in remote data centers, or the “cloud.” With billions of dollars of IT spending in play, the term itself has become a disputed prize. In 2008, Dell drew outrage from programmers after attempting to win a trademark on “cloud computing.” Other technology vendors, such as IBM and Oracle, have been accused of “cloud washing,” or misusing the phrase to describe older product lines.
Like “Web 2.0,” cloud computing has become a ubiquitous piece of jargon that many tech executives find annoying, but also hard to avoid. “I hated it, but I finally gave in,” says Carl Bass, president and CEO of Autodesk, whose company unveiled a cloud-computing marketing campaign in September. “I didn’t think the term helped explain anything to people who didn’t already know what it is.”