The archetype of cloud computing is Amazon EC2, a network of thousands of machines that can do anything from run supercomputer simulations to serve web pages. But cloud computing is more than EC2. It's a whole range of things, from Google apps, to Apple's iCloud storage of music, to the Amazon Kindle's storage of books. I have over 300 books on my Kindle – not actually on the device, but in my account with Amazon. When I broke my Kindle by dropping it two stories, I bought a new one, and all my books were still there. That is cloud.
Sure, Amazon's EC2 sounds a lot like the time-share systems of the early 1960s, but there are important differences. The biggest difference is "how we got here". There wasn't a slow progression of huge "mainframe" computers, but a rapid change from mainframes to "personal computers" in our homes (following Moore's Law).
If other utilities had progressed at the same speed as computing, then we'd all have a small fusion reactor in our homes supplying our electricity. Your iPhone can supply, through the cell network, all of the time-sharing needs of the 1960s.
Yes, Amazon sells compute power, but the word you are looking for is not "utility" but "commodity". Here is the current Wikipedia definition of a public utility:
A public utility (usually just utility) is an organization that maintains the infrastructure for a public service (often also providing a service using that infrastructure). Public utilities are subject to forms of public control and regulation ranging from local community-based groups to state-wide government monopolies. Common arguments in favor of regulation include the desire to control market power, facilitate competition, promote investment or system expansion, or stabilize markets. … The term utilities can also refer to the set of services provided by these organizations consumed by the public: electricity, natural gas, waterand sewage.None of the above applies to Amazon EC2. But, the following Wikipedia page on commodities sounds a lot like Amazon EC2:
It is used to describe a class of goods for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market. A commodity has full or partial fungibility; that is, the market treats it as equivalent or nearly so no matter who produces it. Petroleum and copper are examples of such commodities.In other words, cloud computing is fungible commodity like oil and copper, not a utility like electricity or sewage.
From this perspective, recently deceased Dennis Ritchie (who developed C and co-developed Unix) deserves much more credit than John McCarthy. The reason Ritchie developed Unix was precisely to break the "utility" model of time-share computing up to that point, and to make computers into a "commodity". Today's cloud computers like Amazon EC2 run mostly Unix, and mostly code written in C. They run almost no code written in John McCarthy's LISP.
The personal computing and Internet revolution is a genie that escaped the "utility" bottle. Many want to put that genie back again, and regulate the Internet and computers like utilities. Their arguments always sound good, but they are deceptive. It's the old phone utilities that lobby for regulations requiring new VoIP companies to provide 911/emergency services, making VoIP much more expensive. Likewise, it's law enforcement that lobbied for laws requiring mobile phones to have GPS location tracking features again for 911/emergency calls, but which law enforcement also uses to locate criminals.
Another example is "reliability". We all get frustrated when computers fail (as BlackBerry users recently experienced). Regulators promise to improve reliability. But this comes at a cost. Reliability has decreasing marginal returns, costs quickly explode as government demands more reliability. Right now, bandwidth and cloud computing is free, but it means that sometimes when I try to sync my Kindle, it might fail for a few hours. Despite what the regulators promise, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and regulations will not simultaneously keep costs down and reliability up.
How we define the "cloud" means a lot for our future. We are putting more and more of our "stuff" in the cloud, which special interests want to regulate, control, and monitor. We will lose our freedom unless we fight to keep it. Unless we fight to keep the cloud a "commodity", it will indeed start to look like an Orwellian "utility".
The full quote from McCarthy speaking at the MIT Centennial in 1961:
"If computers of the kind I have advocated become the computers of the future, then computing may someday be organized as a public utility just as the telephone system is a public utility... The computer utility could become the basis of a new and important industry."