Clouds are in the future of your computing and digital entertainment, if they aren't there already. But even though we tend to be biased toward sunshine here in Southern California, these clouds are mostly a good thing.
Amazon.com caused a lot of gnashed teeth in the executive offices at competitors Apple and Google last week when it announced its Cloud Drive service, which offers 5 gigabytes of free storage on Amazon's computers to anyone.
That alone is a rather ordinary offering. There are services of varying types, large and small, free and for pay, that allow you to store your files on a well-connected, secure computer. These services allow you to pull your files from the “cloud” no matter where you are or what device you're using.
What has the industry talking, and recording labels checking with their lawyers, is an innocuous little music-player app Amazon offers with its service. Upload your music to their Cloud Drive and you have your own personal streaming-music service. Buy an album from Amazon after subscribing and you'll get 20GB of storage space for a year.
Apple supposedly has been working on something like this. The company is building a 500,000-square-foot data center in North Carolina that insiders believe will be for streaming media to iPods, iPads and iPhones.
Google, which already is in the cloud-computing business with its Google Docs, demoed a streaming-media player last year.
But Apple's cloud storage isn't ready. And Google doesn't have the relationship with the recording labels necessary to navigate licensing rights. So Amazon, which had been offering wholesale cloud storage services for years and is one of the top music retailers in the nation, saw an opportunity and took it.
What does this mean for you? It's a first step into what three to five years from now will be the norm for computing and digital entertainment. Netbooks, tablets and smartphones already rely more on a cloud connection. Soon, everything will—including your PC and Internet-connected TV.
“Big deal, my files are on the Internet now,” you say. Well, it is a big deal.
It means your music tastes likely will become far more socially networked than they are now, for instance. Which songs are your Facebook friends listening to? People who like the song you listened to 17 times also like this other song. Here, let me share with you the 10 albums I'd want with me if I were stranded on a desert island.
It may even mean the concept of “owning” music will fade. In reality you don't really own the music files on your iPod now, you own rights to play those files.
A popular streaming service available in Europe now, Spotify, allows listeners to put together playlists of any title in its 13-million-song library for free. It's converted more than a million of those listeners to paid subscribers for an ad-free format.
Several services in this country hope to emulate Spotify's success, including Mog, Rhapsody, Napster and Rdio. They all, to one degree or another, allow you to access millions of songs wherever you go, either through Web players or smartphone apps.
Music is just one part of the cloud-computing picture. Google and Microsoft are pushing cloud services because they offer software in the cloud, too, meaning less reliance on traditional software on your computer's hard drive.
Other cloud services offer things like seamless syncing, versioning and backup, so the work you saved to your document folder at the office is automatically in the document folder on your computer at home. Or a family photo you accidentally deleted is available in an online backup drive. Or that contract that was faxed to your all-in-one printer can be accessed and viewed on your iPhone across the country.
The easier collaboration made possible by these services also means changes to the traditional ways of doing things.
The “Hack College” blog, for instance, suggests that students improve on their note-taking by using Google's real-time collaboration to do “tag team” note taking: One student might focus on what the professor is writing, while another focuses on the lecture. A third could do background linking to other sources.
Supernotes, all in the same document, all in real time, in the cloud. It's not your father's way of learning.