3 Screens and a Cloud: What is Cloud Computing?
Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer has claimed many times that computing was heading towards “three screens and a cloud.” The three screens being TV, computer and mobile phone, while the “cloud” ties them all together.
Driving the development of cloud computing, ironically is the mobile phone market. With services like Gmail, Dropbox and Apple’s MobileMe, cloud services are readily accessible to consumers and growing in popularity.
Have you ever seen a status update saying, “I lost my phone, send me your number!” That’s because all of their contacts were saved locally on the phone and couldn’t be accessed otherwise. Any Android phone (now the #1 selling smart-phone in the U.S.) actually requires you to set up a cloud service; a Google account. The consumer may not realize this, but every time a contact or calendar event is added, this data is synced with their Google account automatically.
While this doesn’t effect daily use, the magic comes in when that consumer drops or breaks their phone and is given a replacement. They sign into their Google account on the Android device and suddenly all their contacts, calendar events and emails “magically” appear. This is the beauty of cloud computing.
The “cloud” is actually a company’s server farm where your information is stored to be accessed from any Internet enabled device. For example, uploading a file to Apple’s MobileMe service means it can be accessed from any computer by going to me.com and logging in. Some benefits of the cloud are, the ability to access your files from any computer, using it as a backup service, and the ability for multiple people in various locations to collaborate on a single project.
Cloud computing varies in depth, from contact and calendar syncing, to a full virtual computer accessed through a web browser. There are lots of cloud services available to consumers as well. Carbonite (www.carbonite.com) is a cloud service specializing in backing up your computer data. Sign up for an account, install a desktop helper application and all of the content on your hard drive is synced to the cloud. If the hard drive of a computer crashes, just sign into Carbonite, download the helper application, and all of your data is restored just as you left it.
Another form of cloud computing has become popularized by Netflix. Rather than purchasing a movie through iTunes or other services, and having to wait for it download, Netflix will begin streaming a movie to your TV or computer immediately. The benefit here is little to no wait time to begin watching a movie, and you don’t have a 1.5 GB file taking up precious space on your hard drive. Streaming media has gained momentum with Amazon, Hulu and possibly Apple beginning to offer movies and TV shows with a subscription, rather than paying per episode/movie. All this is possible because these videos are in the cloud and you can access them from many Internet capable Blu-ray Players, TVs, computers, and dedicated streaming boxes like the Roku.
Now we can see how Steve Ballmer’s “three screens and a cloud” come into play. Let’s say you have a Netflix subscription, which allows you to view as many streaming videos as you want. You can view the same content on your TV, as you can on your computer or laptop, and also on your iPad or iPhone. All of this for just $9 a month. Without the cloud, you would have to download a movie to your computer($14), buy a DVD for your television ($20), and maybe sync it to your phone which will take up a good amount of memory.
One of the more full-featured cloud services available is called iCloud (www.iCloud.com). You can sign up for a free trial on their website and upgrade to 100GB of storage for $39.99. iCloud is basically a virtual computer you access through a web browser. After signing up for the service, log in to your account and you’re greeted to a desktop with folders, start menu, shortcut icons, and more. It resembles a Windows 7 desktop with a “start” icon that opens a menu with an “Applications” tab, “Files” tab, “Account,” etc.
Through the web browser interface, you can upload files from your physical hard drive to the cloud and organize them as you would on a real computer. iCloud assigns you an email address which you can access through the cloud and there are even applications that can be “installed” on this virtual machine. A Microsoft compatible word processor is available to completely create a document in the cloud and share it with others. Available within iCloud is a calendar, contact manager, To Do list, music player called “iPlay,” photo browser, video player and even internet radio. There is also an internet browser within iCloud, which doesn’t make much sense considering you have to access iCloud through a web browser like Firefox.
You can also use WebDav to mount your iCloud on a Mac OS computer or iPhone (inside a third-party app). There is also a download for PC’s that will give you access to your iCloud files without logging into a web browser. For all intensive purposes, you can use iCloud as a full computer system that is accessible from anywhere.
To be perfectly honest, iCloud is little over the top. The service certainly doesn’t lack features, but many seem superfluous. If you don’t own a computer and have a spare $40 a year, this may be a great service. This way you can organize a desktop, save photos and music, compose documents, etc., and it will be the same experience on every computer you use. Most people own a desktop or laptop though, and really have no need for an additional virtual computer. Using iCloud as a file manager works fine, especially when mounting it as a server. But 100GB of online storage can be found for the same price with many more features.
For those just starting into cloud-based services, don’t make iCloud your first experience. It’s complicated, expensive, and not very practical for daily use. Services like a Google account are great, most of all because it’s free, but also it gives you great mail, contact and calendar management, access to Google docs (an online word processor), and compatibility with most mobile devices. Cloud computing has many advantages, and there are lots of cloud services to choose from. Take advantage of some of the free trials from Dropbox, MobileMe or Gmail and try cloud computing for yourself.