I’m vacationing with my family, without a laptop in tow, when I get a call from an editor. He needs revisions to an article and he needs them NOW! In an earlier era that could have meant a panic attack. But I go to the hotel’s business center. I log on to my Google account, find the document I need in Google Docs, make the revisions, and email the document. Crisis resolved. That’s cloud computing in action.
According to Andrew Kovacs of Google’s Enterprise Group, “Cloud computing is the new model of delivering software and information over the Internet using huge servers instead of storing it on your own computer.” In theory, that means you can have the programs you need, like word processing, spreadsheets, and email, delivered from a server anywhere to any device that has Internet connectivity. That could be a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone, or one of Google’s freshly minted Chromebooks. You can keep your documents, music, pictures, and videos up in the cloud so you can access them from anywhere, and protect them from local computer crashes.
Cloud computing applications are often cheap, if not free. A DVD version of the most popular shrink wrapped software program on the planet, Microsoft Office, can set you back anywhere from $75 to $200 depending on the version. Google Docs, which includes word processing, spreadsheets and more is free to individual consumers, but there’s a fee for businesses. Admittedly Google Docs doesn’t have all the same bells and whistles as Microsoft Office, but for most of us it has all the functions we’ll ever use. And while Google has invested heavily in the cloud, so have other companies including storage companies like Carbonite, Amazon’s music service that lets you store all your music in the cloud, eBay and YouTube.
Another advantage to cloud computing is that your data is generally accessible regardless of the format or operating system used to create it. That means grabbing your pictures or documents from virtually any Internet connected computer regardless of what applications are on it. And you can do it from anywhere you can get a connection.
Cloud computing does have its dark side. Gerry Purdy, principal analyst for Mobile Trax, says the major weakness in the cloud computing model is connectivity. While the wireless carriers would like you to believe that you can get access to the Internet, and thus to the cloud, from almost anyplace, that’s not always the case. A few examples: airplanes without Wi-Fi, your home when your Wi-Fi connection goes down, or inside a moving car in an area with weak or no data signal. If you’re in any of these places and you need access to the cloud for a document, or to show a picture, or listen to your cloud based music, you’re just out of luck. To underscore his case, Purdy asks one question: how many times have you tried to get onto the web and just couldn’t connect?
Purdy believes the best computing solution is a hybrid approach; keep the things like email, music, and documents that you need to access from your own home or office computer stored locally. Use the cloud for the things that belong up there, like documents that you need to collaborate on. A good example of the hybrid model is Amazon’s Kindle. Your books are on stored on your device, but the cloud automatically backs up your purchases, and updates them to every Kindle enabled device that you own.
One of the other issues with cloud computing is security. Your documents are probably safer in the cloud than they are on your own computer. But that’s not always the perception. It seems that whenever there’s a problem with the cloud, it makes news, whether that’s account information stolen from Sony’s Playstation server, or problems with Amazon’s Music Service. As Gerry Purdy puts it, “sometimes there are bad people using really good tools to do bad things.” The fact is that most cloud services use strong encryption to protect your data, but it’s not always foolproof.
Google has recently developed a new method of protection, called “two step verification” Instead of a second set of security questions, like your bank may use, this allows you to set up a free app on a smart phone. When you log in to your account, the service automatically sends a passcode to your phone so you can access your sensitive data. Google’s Kovacs says this is another way to prevent those “phishing scams” to which elderly users may be more susceptible.
The Ultimate Cloud Computer
Google recently announced a new cloud computing device, the Chromebook. These notebook style computers, which start coming in mid June from Acer and Samsung, use Google’s Chrome Operating System, with very limited local storage. They will be cheaper than either the iPad or Android tablets. Acer’s Chromebook with Wi-Fi only will cost $379. A 3G version will be out later in the summer for $449. Samsung’s 3G device costs $499 with 100 MB of data each month through Verizon. Not everyone is jumping for joy. One reviewer, citing the limitations of having no hard drive likened the Chromebook to a television that only receives some stations. And because it is entirely cloud based, without a connection, you could be trying to work with zero visibility in a fog.