Is the advent of 'the cloud' comparable with the impact of jet engines on aviation and society, asks Gerald Haigh
Recently, with a cousin, I was remembering our late Auntie Betty, who went to the States as a 'GI bride' after the War. What I remember is that she returned on a visit in the mid-1950s on a BOAC Boeing Stratocruiser that landed at Heathrow on three engines, one having failed en route.

This sparked my curiosity and I found myself looking into the big aircraft engines that were used in the period before the arrival of the first really practical jets.

Those last piston engines were truly fearsome devices. The American Pratt and Whitney Wasp Major, which took Stratocruisers across the Atlantic and the Pacific, each had 28 cylinders adding up to 71 litres, giving out 3,500 horsepower. Sheer complication made the engine a nightmare to maintain and operate reliably and Auntie Betty’s experience turns out to have been quite common. Indeed, a couple of Stratocruisers ended up in the sea, producing some interesting stories.

'Jets are still soaring up the development curve'

All of that changed when the jets fully settled in. A jet engine is simpler in principle than one with pistons, produces a lot more power and is much more reliable. Crucially, too, where aircraft piston engines ultimately became difficult to improve substantially, jets are still soaring up the development curve.

The effect, not just on aviation but on society at large, has been profound. Auntie Betty could only afford one visit, at about £3,000 in today’s money. Today, air travel really does shrink the globe.

So here I am, idly wondering whether the advent of the cloud is the digital equivalent of the arrival of the jet. A non-cloud school has a humming and hot server room, a team of experts to keep it going, and runs a network prone to failure that in any case can’t always do what the users demand. A ‘cloud school’ potentially has no servers, no on-site maintenance team, and allows users to do, and use, whatever device or software is appropriate. And, into the bargain, the system is more powerful, rarely, if ever, breaks down or has to limp home on a wing and a prayer.

The important point of comparison, though, is that cloud technology, like the jet engine, breaks out of a cycle of increasing complexity that risks consuming itself and steps forward into a world where the limits lie beyond the visible horizon. It’s at least possible that, ultimately, the effect on society at large will be as profound as the coming of cheap air travel, perhaps in ways that we cannot yet see.

Fanciful nonsense? Maybe, but it would be good to have the thoughts of people who know a lot more about it than I do.

Gerald HaighGerald Haigh is a former teacher and headteacher and a long-established freelance writer of articles and books on education. Currently, a major part of his work is to write case studies, ebooks and blogs for Microsoft UK.

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