Look to clouds for computer improvements

A quiet revolution is taking place under our noses in the way we interact with computers and the work they do for us. While not as big as the advent of the PC or the World Wide Web, it comes close. And instead of being reserved for big corporations and government agencies, this is for everyone, including the average Jane typing a letter or preparing a financial spreadsheet. Called “cloud computing,” it promises to eliminate some of the most frustrating aspects of PCs, and best of all, it’s already here.

Paint in your mind a simple picture comprised of three circles, one for each of these items found in your average PC: (1) computing power, (2) applications such as Microsoft Word and (3) data such as that Christmas letter you’ve been drafting. Having these three things on your computer lets you do lots of things, but they also create some problems. Computing power needs to be upgraded as needs grow; applications need to be purchased, installed, configured and upgraded as we seek out new functionality; and our data needs to be protected, so we buy anti-virus software and, if we’re responsible, we back up.

With cloud computing, two of those three bubbles, applications and data, reside out in the “cloud,” meaning the Internet, that ethereal web of servers and networks beyond our sight and generally beyond our intellectual grasp.

With cloud computing, if we want to create a letter or spreadsheet, we don’t need Word or Excel on our PCs, we simply go out to the cloud, using a normal Web browser such as Microsoft Internet Explorer, to fire up those applications. Once we’ve created our letter, we don’t save it to our PC, we save it to the cloud, where it’s protected and backed up automatically.

That points to another big advantage. Because our work no longer sits on a single system, it’s out there and accessible from any browser on any system. Let’s say you’re on vacation, miles from your PC, when you think of a document you’d like to retrieve. Any PC with an Internet connection can take you to it.

Here at home, this universal access is a big selling point with my kids. They now save their school assignments to their cloud accounts instead of on Mom or Dad’s PC, which might not always be handy.

Now for the remaining bubble, computing power. It doesn’t move entirely from the PC out into the cloud; some needs to remain, but not as much. Most of the hard processing takes place in the cloud. This has led to the rise of “netbooks,” which you might have seen advertised. Considerably less expensive than notebook computers, they have just enough horsepower for cloud computing.

The big player in consumer-based cloud computing is Google, with its products Google Apps and Google Docs. Signing yourself up and taking advantage is free, but we can expect a growing commercial angle, most likely through advertising. But unlike Microsoft’s dominance over the PC world, Google won’t own cloud computing. Healthy competition will serve all consumers well.

For now, give cloud computing a test-drive and glimpse the future. Before long, CDs, DVDs and all kinds of in-home data storage will be going away, to be replaced by that great big storage repository in the sky, the Internet cloud.

Originally published December 10, 2009 in the Fort Collins Coloradoan

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