A simple experiment: the "Influence Reach Factor" Calculator. (Um, it just multiplies two numbers together. But that's beside the point, which was to sort out what it's like to build and deploy an app to Google's App Engine, their cloud computing service.)
Answer: pretty easy. Download the App Engine SDK. Write your program (mine's in Python, code here, be kind, props and thanks to Bukhantsov.org for a good model to work from). Deploy to GAE with a single click.
By contrast, let's go back to 1999. As part of getting up to speed at ArsDigita, I wanted to install the ArsDigita Community System (ACS), an open-source application toolkit and collection of modules for online communities. So I dredged up an old PC from my basement, installed Linux, then Postgres, then AOLServer, then configured all of them so they'd welcome ACS when I spooled it up (oh so many hours RTFM-ing to get various drivers to work). Then once I had it at "Hello World!" on localhost, I had to get it networked to the Web so I could show it to friends elsewhere (this being back in the days before the cable company shut down home-served websites).
At which point, cue the Dawn Of Man.
Later, I rented servers from co-los. But I still had to worry about whether they were up, whether I had configured the stack properly, whether I was virus-free or enrolled as a bot in some army of darkness, or whether demand from the adoring masses was going to blow the capacity I'd signed up for. (Real Soon Now, surely!)
Now, Real Engineers will say that all of this served to educate me about how it all works, and they'd be right. But unfortunately it also crowded out the time I had to learn about how to program at the top of the stack, to make things that people would actually use. Now Google's given me that time back.
Why should you care? Well, isn't it the case that you read everywhere about how you, or at least certainly your kids, need to learn to program to be literate and effective in the Digital Age? And yet, like Kubrick's monolith, it all seems so opaque and impenetrable. Where do you start? One of the great gifts I received in the last 15 years was to work with engineers who taught me to peel it back one layer at a time. My weak effort to pay it forward is this small, unoriginal advice: start by learning to program using a high-level interpreted language like Python, and by letting Google take care of the underlying "stack" of technology needed to show your work to your friends via the Web. Then, as your functional or performance needs demand (which for most of us will be rarely), you can push to lower-level "more powerful" (flexible but harder to learn) languages, and deeper into the stack.