We might be walking on Earth, but our computing is increasingly being done in a virtual cloud removed from the hardware — the phones, netbooks, laptops and other devices — that we touch on a daily basis.
The concept is called cloud computing and nailing down a precise definition of the term is about as easy as grabbing hold of a fluffy cumulus in the sky.
The basic idea is that information and software are increasingly being delivered through a network so that they are available anytime, anywhere from any device that can access the Internet.
Anyone using Yahoo Mail, Hotmail or Gmail is working in the cloud. And the same goes for users of Amazon's popular wireless reading device, the Kindle. And there are a host of applications people use on the iPhone, the G1 phone loaded with Google's Android software, or other smart phones that bring people into the cloud.
Cloud computing has also been likened to utility computing, whereby individuals and companies purchase additional network bandwidth, storage and computation capacity as on-demand services — the same way people buy more electricity to fuel their power needs. Historically, different companies have handled these elements.
But now some companies are offering all three. Amazon, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems are among the host of companies offering cloud computing services and reaching out to consumers, small businesses and the government.
Amazon has been offering cloud services for close to three years. Microsoft also created officelive.com, where consumers can create a free online workspace for one year that includes a place for Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, along with a free Web site and domain name.
The Dark Cloud
"A lot of people are in the cloud and don't even realize it," says Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster and a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Media X research network. "Most people are not even going to notice that their life is migrating into the cloud until something goes wrong."
For example, that's just what happened this week when a 14-year-old girl from New Jersey was arrested for allegedly distributing child pornography after posting numerous nude pictures of herself on MySpace.com.
With the Internet increasingly occupying center stage in our lives, any missteps children — or adults — make on social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook become part of the digital record.
And that can be as far from Cloud Nine as one would want to be.
The cloud is also far from an archival medium. If the company you rely on for cloud services goes bankrupt, it doesn't mean there will be a seamless transition for your files.
Racing To The Cloud
Still, the cloud is driving the development of a new paradigm for consumer electronics. Consumers will increasingly be able to do more with smaller and simpler devices, since software and other applications will essentially live in the cloud.
That means the days of worrying about maintaining your operating system on your own computer may disappear.
But it also means that access to computer software and services will move towards an on-demand model.
"The bottom line for the consumer is that we're pushed into a world where you're going to pay for everything by the slice rather than by the product," says Saffo. "So instead of buying a software application, you're going to subscribe to it."
The Kindle is a case in point because Amazon — not the consumer — pays for the constant connectivity of the device to the Internet.
"In the cloud world, connectivity is oxygen," Saffo says. The Kindle model may force cellular phone companies and other telecommunications providers to reinvent their services so that the information provider — not the consumer — pays the bill for connectivity, he says.
Saffo says a "race" has already commenced between the computer industry and the telecommunications and cellular industry. The question is whether the computer industry will control life in the cloud with netbooks — smaller, less-costly laptops — or whether the cellular industry will dominate the playing field with cell phones that "turn into cloud platforms."
Privacy In The Cloud
When it comes to cloud computing, privacy remains a huge issue for consumers. Saffo says the younger people who are being "sanguine" about it are "naive."
"I guarantee in the cloud world that the information you most want to save will disappear and the information you most hope will evaporate will be preserved forever for unending embarrassment," he says.
Think about what you might post on MySpace or Facebook. Then think about the fact that your children — or future children — are likely to find and read that content one day.
"It's the consequences of being digitally reminded of your youthful folly. It's not so much Big Brother: It's little sister and your neighbor and the like," Saffo says.
Sam Schillace, Google Apps engineering director, says the rich browser experience — especially since its migration to small devices like the iPhone and G1 phone — is part of the reason why people feel comfortable "putting their lives on the cloud."
He says the ability to share photos or to tap into hundreds of applications that allow you to do things such as monitor the nutritional value of the food you eat is part of this cultural shift.
"The cloud story — from top to bottom — is about some kind of ease of use," he says.
Schillace adds that younger generations of consumers are very open with sharing, in part because they're accustomed to living in a social networking space. And, he says, that colors their outlook on privacy.
Creating A Stealth Cloud
Privacy remains a major issue for a range of government agencies — including the FBI, the CIA and others that depend on the highest levels of security — who are exploring using the cloud to save money and energy and improve efficiencies.
"Expectations in the consumer space are driving expectations in the government space," says David Mihalchik, Google's federal business development executive. He adds that "security is built into the DNA of all of our products."
Google and other cloud providers are betting that the government will turn to on-demand providers instead of investing time and money to build these capabilities on their own.