So much hullabalu is afoot in the press these days regarding Software as a Service (SaaS), Cloud Computing and Web 2.0 that our own internal news service had to create a new RSS feed category just to optimally classify and keep tabs on the trends, stories and technologies claiming to be a part of the push. No doubt, many education organizations and companies are starting to evaluate the merits of hosted services, especially those considered "commodity", to offload the burden of management, maintenance, support and upgrades required by on-premise software. To go one step further, some customers have already ventured down that path, having deployed student email using Live@edu, utilizing Office Live Workspaces for project or team collaboration or Live Skydrive for sharing presentations, projects and files.
Perhaps one of the most compelling rationale for investigting and migrating certain "life and work functions" to the cloud is that in many cases they are free - including all the Live technologies cited above, as well as some of the more consumer-oriented social networking sites like Facebook and Live Spaces. "Free" tends to be looked at from different angles, depending on your lens and perspective, however; as an end user, you don't pay for a packaged piece of software or download, but you do have to endure the utilization of your web services as an advertising platform. Most tend to agree this is worth it, given the benefits and value of the experience, and advertisers are all to happy to supplement the large cost of raised floor, fat pipe, massive disk arrays, server management, personnel overhead and energy by providing you with the latest and greates mortgage refinancying deal, for example. While this might be acceptable for consumers, the justification becomes a little muddled when students come in to play, especially minors, and especially when advertising may present a conflict of interest for a university or school district. Further, enterprise services don't have an advertisement-subsidy option, so the subscription cost of cloud services must be weighed against traditional on-premise IT management - not necessarily an easily aligned ROI or TCO equation.
I'll take this thread one step further by posing this question: is it feasible to follow this hype cycle through to completion such that *all* desktop and on-premise functions could eventually and theoretically be hosted (and free?) That may eventually be a possibility, but step back for a moment and think about what you do on your PC everyday - connected or not. Think about the spreadsheets, documents and applications you run locally that could benefit from a more lively interface with cloud services - a Word document session that allows collaboration with a student that just has a browser; an interactive history simulation session running on your PC that allows realtime assessment inputs from student cell phones; a homework folder that simultaneous updates your instructor PC, your browser at home and your cell phone when assignments are posted. These scenarios, and many others like it that are more business and consumer oriented, are what embody the definition of what Microsoft calls Software + Services (link to interative web site explaining the premise in detail). The crux of the idea is that we believe in, and are massively investing in cloud services for both consumer and business alike, and see great value and productivity in a world where those services are optimized with the rich applications we use everyday on our increasingly powerful desktops. Not just a redefinition of SaaS, S+S takes the cloud services vision to completion - read more on the above web site and let me know what you think.