Is “cloud” a technical term (yet)?
Posted by Barbara Inge Karsch on October 11, 2011
We have jargon, we have words, we have phrases…we have terms. Can words become terms? How would that happen? And has “the cloud” arrived as a technical concept yet?
Cloud, as a word, is part of our everyday vocabulary. With the summer over, it’ll again be part of our daily lives in the Pacific Northwest for the next eight months. On the right is a good definition from the Merriam Webster Learner’s Dictionary. The Learner’s Dictionary is not concerned with technical language, as it is compiled for non-native speakers. So, the definition doesn’t allude to the fact that clouds, in a related sense, are also part of the field of meteorology and therefore part of a language for special purposes (LSP).
When common everyday words are used in technical communication and with specialized meaning, they have become terms through a process called terminologization. Is cloud, as in cloud computing, there yet? Or is it still in this murky area where marketing babel meets technical communication? It certainly was initially.
Here is a great blog on when cloud was used for the first time. Author John M. Willis asked his Twitter followers Who Coined The Phrase Cloud Computing? and could then trace back the first occurrences to May of 1997 and a patent application for “cloud computing” by NetCentric; then to a 1999 NYT article that referred to a Microsoft “cloud of computers”, and finally to a speech by Google’s Eric Schmidt who Willis says he would pick as the moment when the cloud metaphor became mainstream.
That was 2006, and “the cloud” may have become part of the tech world’s hype, but it wasn’t a technical term with a solid and clearly delineated definition. As Willis points out “cloud computing was a collection of related concepts that people recognized, but didn’t really have a good descriptor for, a definition in search of a term, you could say.”
Yes, we had the designator, but did we really have a clear definition? In my mind, everyone defined it differently. For a while, the idea of “the cloud” was batted around mostly by marketing and advertising folks whose job it is to use hip language and create positive connotations. When “the cloud” and other marketing jargon sound like dreams coming true to disposed audiences, they usually spell nightmare to terminologists. The path of a “cloud dream” into technical language is a difficult one. In 2008, I was part of a terminology taskforce within the Windows Server team who tried to nail down what cloud computing was. I believe the final definition wasn’t set when I left in May 2010.
On a recent walk, though, I took my resident Azure architect evangelist (See You say Aaaazure, I say Azuuuure…) through a good analysis of the conceptual area. Although Greg kept saying that some of the many companies in cloud computing these days “would also include x, y, or z,” x, y and z all turned out to not be “essential characteristics.” And we ended up with the following definition. It is based largely on the one published by Netlingo, but modified to meet more of the criteria of a terminological definition:
“A type of computing in which dynamic, scalable and virtual resources are provided over the Internet and which includes services that provide common business applications online and accessible from a Web browser, while the software and data are stored on servers.”
Wouldn’t it be great, if a terminologist could stand by to assist any time a new concept is being created somewhere? Then, we’d have nice definitions and well-formed terms and appellations right away. Since that is utopia, at least it helps to be aware that language is in flux, that marketing language might be deliberately nebulous, and that it might take time before a majority of experts have agreed on what something is and how it is different from other things around it. I think “the cloud” and “cloud computing” have been terminologized and arrived in technical language.