Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Pushing to the Cloud: Weird Wireless Words

It's hard to keep up with techie terms these days. Last week, Apple Inc. announced it would no longer use the word push to describe the way that its new online MobileMe service communicates to personal computers and electronic devices like the iPhone. Turns out the service wasn't always "pushing" data to "the cloud" as quickly as users were expecting. To which non-technophiles would probably say, "Huh?"

New-fangled jargon is often confusing, but it can be especially daunting to outsiders when everyday words are repurposed for technical use. Push and cloud are two good examples. Push, for most of us, can be a verb with a central meaning of "move with force" or a noun meaning "the act of applying force in order to move something away." But the advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-'90s introduced something called "push technology." That's a way to send (or "push out") data via the Internet automatically, as soon as the data is available. The documentation for Netscape Navigator 1.1, an early Web browser, explained the difference between "server push" and "client pull." The "push" mechanism meant that information could be delivered immediately, in "real time" as they say, from a server (a computer that shares resources across a network) to a client (a computer that is hooked up to the network).

Fast-forward a decade or so, and we find ourselves in a world where wireless technology is increasingly bringing "push" services straight to people's handheld devices. The early success of the BlackBerry largely depended on e-mail and other data being "pushed" immediately to the wireless device, rather than having to be synchronized by hand. Those instant updates helped transform the BlackBerry into a super-addictive gadget for the digerati, earning it the nickname "CrackBerry."

Apple's popular iPhone relies on similar technology, sending information to and from a nebulous group of online servers now dubbed "the cloud." A cloud in computing contexts doesn't refer to a mass of water or ice droplets suspended in the sky, but rather a mass of computer servers running in a kind of virtual grid. Web applications from companies like Google and Amazon are powered by "cloud servers" that store information in a network of refrigerated data centers around the world. A writer for InfoWorld recently observed that cloud is "a perfect marketing buzzword for the server industry, heralding images of a gauzy, sunlit realm that moves effortlessly across the sky." (See Orin Hargraves' recent Language Lounge for further ruminations on the "cloud" metaphor.)

The problem now faced by Apple is that its MobileMe service does a fine job pushing email, contacts, and calendars from the cloud, but it's less adept at pushing that data to the cloud, according to some user complaints. Updates made to address books on Macs and PCs aren't being passed along to the cloud server instantaneously, instead getting synchronized once every 15 minutes (gasp!). So Apple has apologetically backed off from using the word push in its description of MobileMe, replacing it with the not-so-instantaneous sync.

When asked about the semantic squabble by the Los Angeles Times technology blog, UC Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg likened Apple's apology for using push to a delay-prone airline no longer calling its flights "on time," or a troubled bank refraining from calling deposits "safe." "It's an odd kind of apology," Nunberg mused. "You promised something. And it turns out you can't deliver it. But when you come up short, you apologize for the word."

Does new techno-jargon leave you feeling bewildered, annoyed, or lost in the clouds? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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