Speaking of the Cloud …

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Discussing “the cloud” is a very common thing these days, especially in technology and increasingly in accounting and financial circles.

If history past be our guide, ultimately the concept of the cloud as being something separate from the web will cease as more people get used to the idea — although when that day will come is anyone’s guess.

Source: Mathew Ingram / GigaOm

Do we really need to know there’s a cloud?

Box.net and similar companies such as Dropbox use the cloud for file hosting and syncing, so you never have to remember which computer you left a specific file on, or use cumbersome remote-access apps to get to the document you need. They have become such an integral part of the way many people work (including me) it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. And in many ways the fact that they use “the cloud” is irrelevant — all that users really need to know is that their files are available whenever and wherever they want them.

If I was explaining either service to my parents, for example, I would try not to use the term “cloud” at all. It wouldn’t really make any sense to them without an explanation, and once I started explaining it — how the cloud is a bunch of servers that Amazon or Google maintains in giant buildings that hold billions of individual files — it would actually make things worse. If I just pointed out that any files placed in a specific folder would automatically show up in other folders on different computers, then they would understand everything they need to know.

Of course, this kind of feature would probably seem like magic to my parents — but then, much of modern technology falls into that category for them, I think. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Geeks and technology fans used to like to talk about their computers and what processors they had, and how much RAM, and even what kind of cooling system they had in them — as well as which operating system was better. As computers have become more powerful and ubiquitous, with mobile devices like smartphones and tablets taking over a large share of the market, I seem to hear fewer of those conversations. And because so much of what we do now involves the web and the “cloud,” things like operating systems and processors and specific PC features are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

The cloud is like the atmosphere — all around us

In the same way, I think the whole idea of a “cloud” will eventually cease to be remarkable — just as computing power is gradually disappearing into the environment around us and becoming part of everyday objects like mirrors or jewelry, even as computers become more powerful every day. Already, hundreds of millions of people use cloud services without even realizing it or talking about it as the cloud. Web-based email is the norm now rather than the exception, and services like Facebook have hundreds of millions of users who likely never stop to think about where their content is being hosted.

That’s not to say there aren’t important issues involved in the cloud, including what rights your cloud provider has to simply delete data (as Amazon did last year with the files hosted by WikiLeaks) or what legal liabilities you undertake when you host your files, photos and other data on a U.S.-based server — something that companies based in other jurisdictions need to be aware of. And in many cases, users themselves need to be aware that their files or content can easily disappear, making backups a necessity.

But in the not-too-distant future, we will all be living and working and exchanging files and services via the cloud, to the point where it won’t really even make sense to talk about the cloud as something separate. It will be like the atmosphere: all around us, invisible, and only important when we don’t have access to it.


Sarah Gardiner

All stories by: Sarah Gardiner