Saturday, July 16, 2011

The cloud is here, and it's real

For years, we have heard the term 'cloud computing'. While it tends to be described by the tech world in very complex jargon, it's really a pretty simple concept.

In today's scenario most of your stuff - like the operating system, productivity software that you use, and your personal files like movies, music etc is stored in your hard drive, external drive, or on other storage media like pen drives, discs etc.

Chances are you are already using some cloud based services. Email services like Gmail, video or photo sharing services like Picassa and YouTube, filesharing services like Dropbox and blogging platforms like Blogger, and of course, Google Docs, store your stuff on remote servers, so you and your friends can access them from anywhere, on any device. Most of the apps that we run on smartphones also access and run data off the cloud.

 But when we talk about the cloud today, the term has expanded in its scope and vision. The Office software that you use would run off a server on the Net, your entire music, movie and picture libraries would reside on a server. It's like a hard drive, but it's all in a virtual space, sitting on a server. You would probably pay a small sum for this service, but you would enjoy the great convenience of being able to access stuff anywhere. You would not need to physically sync, transfer or dump files from one device to another.

The growing base of mobile devices has made the cloud a reality. Gartner has predicted that 387 million PCs will ship in 2011, but they also claim that 468 million smartphones will be sold in the same period. On top of that, many more tablets will also ship in 2011.

Smartphones and tablets lack the huge storage space, and the processing power that we have on our PCs. You would not be able to load and run an Office Suite on your phone, and you certainly would not be able to store all your music, movies and files. But you would be able to use Google Apps or Google Docs, off pretty much any mobile device, and this is what makes the cloud compelling.
 
So if you are interested in starting to use cloud services, you have a lot of choices coming up in the near future

1) Cloud services for music storage and streaming
iTunes and Amazon are both retailers of music and the first cloud services they have offered are a facility to store your music on their secure servers and stream it onto any device. Amazon launched Cloud Drive and Cloud Player in March, and followed up with separate apps for iOS and Android platforms. Apple's iCloud, will be part of the upcoming iOS 5 update due in September. Apple has also promised that with iOS 5, you will be able to sync and update your iOS devices wirelessly to iTunes. Both Amazon and Apple's iCloud will operate as 'freemium' services with a base 5 GB of free storage - in addition, you will get free storage for music purchased from their own stores. And you can buy more storage incrementally, according to your needs.

Google Music works on the same premise, allowing users to upload their music to a Google server and then stream it onto an Android phone, or through the web.

2) Productivity software and office suites
Google Docs has been a successful effort in this direction, and now Microsoft has bit the bullet. A couple of weeks ago, Microsoft launched Office 365, an upgrade on their existing cloud bundle. Targeted at enterprise and small business, the package includes Web Apps which are the web counterparts of Excel, PowerPoint etc.

Of course, cloud services have raised many questions, notably around the security of data. With music storage on the cloud, record labels have demanded licensing fees from Apple and Amazon. And in a country like India, till we see wider deployment of 3G or at least better availability of Wi-fi networks, cloud services will take off slowly. But they are here to stay, and I am sure we will be using them more and more in the days to come