Nick has a long post about Tim O'Reilly not getting the cloud. He questions Tim's assumptions on Web 2.0, network effects, power laws, and cloud computing. Both of them have good points.
O'Reilly comments on the cloud in the context of network effects:
"Cloud computing, at least in the sense that Hugh seems to be using the term, as a synonym for the infrastructure level of the cloud as best exemplified by Amazon S3 and EC2, doesn't have this kind of dynamic."
"The network effect is indeed an important force shaping business online, and O'Reilly is right to remind us of that fact. But he's wrong to suggest that the network effect is the only or the most powerful means of achieving superior market share or profitability online or that it will be the defining formative factor for cloud computing."
Both of them also argue about applying power laws to the cloud computing. I am with Nick on the power laws but strongly disagree with him on his view of cloud computing and network effects. The cloud at the infrastructure level will still follow the power laws due to the inherent capital intensive requirements of a data center and the tools on the cloud would help create network effects. Let's make sure we all understand what the powers laws are:
"In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution."
Any network effect starts with a small set of something and it eventually grows bigger and bigger - users, content etc. The cloud makes it a great platform for such systems that demand this kind of growth. The adoption barrier is close to zero for the companies whose business model actually depends upon creating these effects. They can provision their users, applications, and content on the cloud and be up and running in minutes and can grow as the user base and the content grows. This actually shifts the power to the smaller players and help them compete with the big cloud players and yet allow them to create network effects.
The big cloud players, that are currently on the supply side of this utility mode, have few options on the table. They either can keep themselves to the infrastructure business and I would wear my skeptic hat and agree with a lot of people on the poor viability of this capital intensive business model that has very high operational cost. This option alone does not make sense and the big companies have to have a strategic intent behind such large investment.
The strategic intent could be to SaaS up their tools and applications on the cloud. The investment and control over the infrastructure would provide a head start. They can also bring in partner ecosystem and crowdsource large user community to create a network effect of social innovation that is based on collective intelligence which in turn would make the tools better. One of the challenges with the recommendation systems that uses collaborative filtering is to be able to mine massive information that includes users' data and behavior and compute the correlation by linking it with massive information from other sources. The cloud makes a good platform for such requirements due to its inherent ability to store vast amount of information and perform massive parallel processing across heterogeneous sources. There are obvious privacy and security issues with this kind of approach but they are not impossible to resolve.
Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are the supply side cloud infrastructure players that are already moving in the demand side of the tools business though I would not call them the equal players exploring all the opportunities.
And last but not the least, there is a sustainability angle around the cloud providers. They can help consolidate thousands of data centers into few hundreds based on the geographical coverage, availability of water, energy, and dark fiber etc. This is similar to consolidating hundreds of dirty coal plants into few non-coal green power plants that can produce clean energy with efficient transmission and distribution system.