Up until recently, computing in ‘the cloud’ has been a buzzword more commonly heard in business circles, with the suited ones chatting about side-loading documents, retrieving PowerPoint presentations and accessing extensive databases while out and about. To be honest, it wasn’t very exciting, and despite its cutesy name; the cloud seemed a bit dull.
However, just as they did with video-calling, Apple came along and showed us regular folk that cloud computing was actually cool and fun by introducing iCloud during WWDC 2011. Of course, just like FaceTime, iCloud was by no means the first of its kind; it’s just being an Apple product it gained a massive amount of publicity and captured the imagination of those not already familiar with the technology.
You may be wondering if there’s any difference between the ‘cloud’ that you’ll use with iOS 5 and the ‘cloud’ used by sales reps in Audi A4s. Basically, the cloud describes any process or application which can be accessed and operated from a connected device, including everything from online storage services such as Dropbox and online email systems such as Gmail, to apps which can remotely control other devices or even those which store pictures of receipts for personal accounting purposes.
While some business people may use these apps too, others will use a business focused cloud solution, such as SalesForce’s Sales Cloud and Service Cloud. In essence it’s all the same principle, it’s just the presentation and public perception that changes. Using applications which don’t make use of local storage or processing power, and are available through a variety of devices, makes cloud computing a perfect mate for mobile phones; hence the reason we’re seeing a big push in that direction now data speeds have increased and the smartphone has become more commonplace.
So which cloud services are vying for your attention, and who is backing them? Let’s find out in this roundup of the biggest players on the scene right now, before moving on to some of those who are planning for the future.
All Round Solutions in the Cloud:
An evolution of MobileMe, iCloud will be somewhere to store all your contacts, calendar updates, iWork files and even daily backups of your iPhone and iPad, including apps. iCloud will operate automatically too, meaning you won’t forget an important backup, plus the entire service will be free for all users.
Photo Stream and iTunes in the Cloud offers similar online storage options for pictures and music files, with images being pushed to almost any device, and previously purchased music able to be downloaded on a new device. It’s all part of the new iOS 5 software expected to launch in the coming weeks.
Windows phone 7.5 Mango will have SkyDrive built-in and like iCloud, SkyDrive provides online storage and wireless access to all your uploaded files and documents, including the opportunity to publicly share folders for collaborative purposes. All you need is a Windows Live ID and you’ll get a whopping 25GB of space for free, plus it’ll integrate with Office programs and both Windows Live Mail and Live Photos too.
Although it hasn’t been officially talked about all that much, beta versions of WP7 Mango have included an MP3 streaming option, so if you save your music on SkyDrive you’ll be able to listen to it at anytime, no matter whether it’s saved on your device or not. Windows Phone 7.5 Mango is also expected in the next few weeks.
Google’s Music Beta, Docs, ChromeOS and Chromebook
Google’s ChromeOS took its time coming to market, and the Chromebook computer managed to arrive just when tablets were all the rage, and the netbook trend had almost finished. ChromeOS only works online through the browser, with applications launched and operated in that one window, allowing the hardware specs to be kept to a minimum and the costs down, while still maintaining functionality. Another open-source netbook OS, Jolicloud, works in a similar way.
Additionally, Google’s Music Beta provides cloud storage and streaming for your music, and Google Docs allows you to create, upload and store documents and files to access via any browser. Then there’s Gmail for email, Picasa for photos and so on. Google’s suite of apps and services is cloud computing at its most accessible.
Music and Video in the Cloud:
Spotify and Netflix
Spotify lets you listen to music, wirelessly, almost anywhere you are in the world, even if you don’t own the music itself. Netflix, in the USA at least, offers streaming movies via Amazon’s own cloud services. These two are perfect examples of the cloud working really well outside of a business environment, and performing equally well on smartphones too.
Amazon’s Cloud Player and Cloud Drive
In the USA, Amazon offers both an online music service, Cloud Player, and an online storage solution, Cloud Drive. Cloud Player is notable because it integrates so well with iOS, even without a native app. Accessed through Safari, your stored music can be selected and streamed, and it even works in the background and mutes when a call comes through! Web-apps like this only need a data connection, as nothing is stored locally.
Storage in the Cloud:
Sync files from your computer by files, which then alter in real-time as you alter them at source! Files, folders and photos can be viewed and edited via a web interface, plus there are mobile apps for the majority of major platforms, when the sync-via-email service comes in handy.
The 2GB storage you get with a free account will probably be enough for most people, but this figure can be increased if you want to pay to upgrade your account. Syncing is automatic across your computers, and files can be shared with others with an invite. An excellent iOS app even lets you watch videos stored in your Dropbox!
Coming to a Cloud Near You Soon:
A cloud-based operating system from Alibaba, the popular Chinese e-commerce site. Supposedly heading to phones and tablets soon, AliCloud will provide all the usual online services such as email, maps and weather, along with web-apps, wireless syncing and 100GB of storage for each user. AliCloud will even run Android applications!
The Chinese manufacturer will offer Cloud+ services to users of their Vision Android smartphone, providing online storage for videos, pictures, email and documents. Their remote servers will also play host to some third-party apps, although exactly what they’ll do hasn’t been confirmed.
As you can see, it’s easy to live almost entirely in the cloud already, even without Apple’s iCloud service. The question is, would you want to? While the benefits to developers (only having to create a single web-app for all platforms) is clear, there is a rightful concern to consumers over security. Storing your entire life on someone else’s system, and trusting them to keep it safe and secure is a big ask; and shouldn’t take the place of local backups or sensible storage of your more sensitive data.
Cloud computing is another piece of the technological convergence puzzle, allowing all kinds of tasks and services – from watching video to storing files – to be carried out from any device wherever you are. It’s no passing fad either, as a recent Juniper Research study indicated the mobile cloud sector would be worth $9.5 billion by 2014, representing an 88% growth over today. You best become familiar with working in the cloud, as there are very cloudy skies ahead!