Making sense of “the cloud”

June 9, 2011

The end of the nice weather?There’s a good chance you’ve heard some news about “the cloud” lately. When we in the tech industry mention “moving to the cloud”, we’re not talking about those cumulous or stratus ones in the sky. “The cloud” is the Internet: your data stored on web-connected servers.

You may already store some of your information in the cloud. If you use any kind of webmail service (like Gmail or Yahoo Mail), you’re already there. Over the last couple of months, though, companies are trying to expand the amount and types of data that are stored online.

The technology behind cloud services is still relatively new, and it’s a bit confusing to understand how it works. On top of that, the big players – Amazon, Google, and Apple – have different ideas about how your cloud data should be accessed. Let’s take a look at where we stand.

Why would I want my data stored on the Internet?

Have you ever downloaded a song on your computer at home, headed out to a meeting or commute, and realized you forgot to move the song from your computer to your mobile device? Cloud-based services allow you to access your data no matter where you are; as long as you have a device that can connect to the Internet, you can access your files.

But it’s more than just music. Do you have a presentation to do? With a cloud-based service, you can create the show on your home computer and then access it from your iPad or laptop when you’re at your meeting or event. You never need to worry about where your files are or what version is on what device; everything is kept up-to-date in the cloud.

Amazon and Google’s view: access data online through a browser

May was a big month for online music. Amazon launched their Cloud Player and Google began inviting people to use their Music Beta. Both are really convenient ways to access your music wherever you are. Upload your music from your computer once, and you’ll be able to access it anywhere you have an Internet connection.

With Amazon, you can also store photos and documents on their Cloud Drive. Google has Google Docs to let you store and edit your documents from right within the browser.

Here’s the bottom line with Amazon and Google’s services: your music, documents, and photos are stored on a server online. If you want to play or edit them, you work from the copy on the server. There’s nothing to download or sync; you work with the file directly in the cloud, and you can stream your music from the cloud anytime you’re connected to the web.

Apple’s view: keep copies on all devices up-to-date

On Monday Apple introduced iCloud, their new service to allow you to keep music, documents, photos, documents, and more up-to-date on your devices. iCloud uses a lot of the same concepts as Amazon and Google’s cloud services, but they do it a little differently.

Instead of working directly with a version of the file on a server, Apple creates copies of your data on all the devices you own. If you make a change on one device, those changes are pushed to an Apple server and then automatically updated on all your other devices. The end result is the same: if you’re working on your presentation on your home computer, you’ll be able to see the latest version regardless of the device you use to view it. Pick up your iPhone and the latest changes will be right there.

Which is best?

All that said, which flavor of cloud services is best? There’s no easy answer to that. With Google and Amazon’s services, it’s really quick and easy to access and edit your changes on any computer or device without downloading any special apps or viewers. The downside is that you need to be connected to the web to access your data. Apple’s iCloud automatically keeps all of your devices up to date, and you can access the latest version whether or not you’re connected online. You need to have a computer or device that supports iCloud, though, and you’ll have to download music to your device when you first buy it instead of the instant streaming Amazon and Google offer.

Whichever option you choose, cloud services let you worry less about the location and versions of your files and let you concentrate on the important stuff. And remember, we’re just getting started; with cloud services, the sky’s the limit.

Thanks to Tambako for sharing the photo for this post with a Creative Commons license!


Justin is a web and mobile developer at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *