State-of-the-Cloud

Welcome to this latest State of the Cloud, our editorial column where we look back on the month that’s been and look forward to the one ahead. In keeping with convention, this January edition is where we look back on the old year as a whole and make some predictions for the one to come.

Well, 2019 was quite the year, and we’re looking back on it with mixed feelings here at Cloudwards. Though it’s mostly good news when considering the industries we review — cloud gaming is taking off, VPNs are proliferating and getting better, encryption has improved across the board — when it comes to our rights as a whole, things seem mostly to be getting worse

Throughout the year, plenty of noise was made about reining in Facebook and the other big tech companies, but aside from hurdles placed in their way, little was fixed. At the same time, many governments the world over seem more intent than ever on controlling what people do, both online and offline, and are deploying the latest in tech to do so.

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That said, we prefer not to identify too much with prophets of doom (well, not since the police asked us to step down from that soapbox that one time), but instead look for silver linings as well as thunderclouds. However, for the sake of brevity, we’ll mainly be focusing on the industries we cover.

Messages from the Front

VPNs

As we predicted in last year’s January SotC, the VPN wars became a pretty big thing in 2019. We should probably mention that it was very much a cold war, though, with most of the action taking place behind the scenes and only industry insiders getting any real idea of what was going on. 

Besides the scandals and other, bigger news, the most prominent place where this conflict was fought was in the pricing of VPNs. Not a month went by when we didn’t receive an email from a service or, more commonly, from a reader letting us know about some price changes (thanks for that, people, we couldn’t keep track of this without you). 

NordVPN, for example, changed its prices three times, from just north of $100 per three years at the start of the year, to less than that, to now stabilizing at about $125 for the same plan — and that’s leaving promotional offers out of the equation. Private Internet Access took that a step further and nearly doubled its prices for a short while before bringing them back down to realistic levels.

Picking a Winner

The upshot for consumers seems to be that it pays to keep an eye on our VPN reviews, as well as the pricing pages of the providers they are interested in. Another thing to keep in mind is to check the pedigree of the VPN service you’re thinking of getting into bed with, for two reasons.

For one, in the race for market share, some VPNs are improving the product, which is a good thing and probably the reason why audits by cybertech firms are so loudly advertised on many a homepage. The other side of that coin is that plenty of services are cutting corners, trying to bring down overhead to stay competitive. 

Simultaneously, new companies have sprung up like mushrooms after a storm, looking to cash in on this new tide of privacy consciousness; it seems that not a week goes by without us getting a review request in our inbox. Most of these services are pretty bad, looking to get a minimally viable product out to make some dough to then reinvest, and we recommend readers stay away.

The takeaway should be that checking reviews before picking a VPN is the way to go while these wars rage. The way things are going, there seems to be no signs of a ceasefire anytime soon, but we’ll strive to keep you updated.

Hacks and Blocks

Of course, besides the usual jockeying for market position, there was some other, harder news coming from the VPN sphere in 2019. The biggest story was probably the news that NordVPN was hacked in March, but didn’t disclose the breach until October. 

We go into our full opinion in this piece, but the upshot is that we’re mostly annoyed at the service not for being hacked, which can happen to any company, but rather that customers weren’t told until the media broke the story. You’d figure that the money people are paying NordVPN would earn them some transparency.

At the same time, with the treasure trove of data that VPNs have, they’re probably being attacked all the time, with none of the services affected ever telling people. 

In a way, the main takeaway could very well be that it’s a shame that we’re forced to resort to barely known third parties simply to remain anonymous on the internet. If governments and ISPs would simply leave us alone, we wouldn’t have to bother.

A good example of a government with way too much interest in what its citizens are up to while they’re browsing the internet is Russia. However, after realizing that its people were using VPNs to get past its draconian ban, the Russian communications authority sent a strong letter to a number of VPN services, demanding they blacklist the same sites that the Motherland does.

As you can read in this piece on the Russian VPN ban, the VPNs’ answer was a big fat raspberry, meaning that, for now at least, Russians can still do whatever they’d like on the internet, until the next mad idea to come out of Moscow.

Online Gaming, but Not Like That

The other big development in 2019 was the ascent of cloud gaming. Though people have been talking about it for a long time, and our favorite service, Shadow, has been hard at work for longer than that, it’s really only last year that it entered the general consciousness, thanks to Google and Microsoft deciding to put skin in the, well, game.

However, after reviewing all major players in that market, we came away kind of disappointed with the big boys. Sony’s PlayStation Now service and the GeForce Now beta are the exceptions, but none of them were able to bring the expertise and muscle to bear in the same way Shadow did, which is less a multi-billion dollar corporation and more a smallish company from Germany. 

The biggest letdown was Google’s Stadia, which offered fewer games than anybody else, had a ton of issues when we reviewed it, and came with a meh controller made of bargain-bin plastic. 

Microsoft’s xCloud preview was pretty decent, but only when compared to Stadia; when laid alongside Shadow, we’d pick the Teutonic alternative any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Cloud Gaming Issues

This raises the question, of course, on how this is possible. Some of the biggest, baddest megacorps are delivering mediocre experiences while Shadow offers a fully realized one. There are several reasons for this, but the most important, in our estimation, is the approach taken.

Stadia, xCloud and, to a certain extent, PS Now are letting you stream games. You log in to a client on your own device, which then logs in to a remote server that boots up your game and lets you play. It’s basically an advanced version of what Netflix did with Bandersnatch, the Netflix special where you could interact with the story as it developed.

Shadow takes a far less subtle approach and just lets you use a virtual machine. When you sign up to the service, you get a client — that much is the same — but you get use of a virtual machine in a remote location. Hell, when you log in, it’s basically just a Windows box. The difference lies in the fact that its running some seriously high-end hardware most folks simply can’t afford.

You’d think that the Shadow approach is basically just a complicated workaround, and you’d be right, pretty much. However, with the state of tech where it is, it works a lot better than what the competition is offering. Although the streaming-style approach will probably be a much better investment in the long run, in the here and now it simply doesn’t work as well.

The upshot is that, for now, Big Tech’s approach simply misses the mark. In the future, when we all have broadband and they work out the teething issues, their version of cloud gaming will likely wipe the floor with what Shadow is doing. For the time being, though, the German approach seems to be the best bet for consumers.

Final Thoughts

As you can tell, 2019 was a heady year for VPNs and cloud gaming, but, as regular readers of this column know, there was plenty else going on, as well. We predict that over the course of 2020, almost all online businesses will feel the weight of government snooping, so expect plenty of updates on that very subject, especially via our Twitter feed.

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That said, we’re gonna stick with our New Year’s resolution to not predict too much for the coming year, letting the news wash over us instead. We hope you enjoyed our little recap of the year that’s passed, and we hope to welcome you to these pages in the year to come. Thank you for reading, and let us know in the comments below if we left out any major stories.

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