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Hide your children! Grab your pets! Pay off your mortgage! The Cloud is coming!

Okay, maybe “the cloud” isn’t a threat to all you hold dear, but it will definitely change your technological world. Right now your photos, movies, music, and old English papers are probably stashed haphazardly on a buzzing hard-drive somewhere; but plenty of companies, including heavyweights Apple, Google, and Amazon, are banking on someday moving all your personal data to their servers hundreds (or thousands) of miles away from your laptop – this is the cloud.

SAmazon's cloud storagehould you do it? Can you trust your data to the e-wizards of Silicon Valley? The cloud - whether Apple’s iCloud, Google’s Chrome, or Amazon’s Cloud Drive - has a lot going for it. Hard drives, DVDs, even vinyl can break, wear-out, or become otherwise indisposed in any number of ways. By contrast most cloud services will store your vast Barry Manilow collection in multiple secure locations. Your collection is fairly safe barring some sort of nationwide calamity, in which case Copacabana would probably be the least of your concerns.

The other big selling point is access. Just like your iPod made the days of hot-swapping cassettes and CDs a thing of the past, cloud storage is already making the mp3 player look like an anachronism. “You mean you had to store all your music in your iPod?” your grandchildren may someday ask you, incredulous, as they stream terabytes of music into their iBrains. With the cloud, you can access all your media, anywhere, anytime – provided there’s an internet access point nearby.

It’s a point the music industry is embracing. “We’re moving from an era where ownership has changed to accessibility… just knowing it’s there and you can get it at a moment’s notice is just as good or better than ownership,” notes president of Nashville’s Capitol Records, Mike Dungan. “We learned about 15 years ago you can’t stop technology and any attempt to modify or thwart it is just counterproductive to what we want to do.”

According to Dungan, Capitol and its competition are preparing for the day when the very concept of digital ownership changes. He says that while past and current generations wanted to own things, the very youngest music listeners see CDs as nothing more than disposable storage. Once the music is on their iPod, the CD is in the trash. The change is likely to make music more about renting than traditional purchases.

Google ChromeTo be fair, whether future generations embrace the cloud to the exclusion of good, old-fashioned at-home storage is still an open question. Your grandkids may regard the cloud with the same healthy skepticism as some of its present-day critics. These old codgers still clutch to their spinning disks, rightly pointing out that the cloud’s greatest selling points also present new weaknesses. As the cloud grows in popularity, more enterprising hackers will want to dine on the ever-growing buffet of sensitive personal information. While there’s plenty of malware floating around for your average PC, most average users are spared active Enemy of the State-style hacking attempts by top-notch computer hackers; they prefer juicier targets. But combine the info for a thousand people and suddenly you’re talking about some real money for the tech-savvy criminal.

Of course, whether rightful owner or hacker, you’ll need an internet connection to access the goods. Wireless internet is growing by leaps and bounds, but many are uneasy relying on internet connection, especially given the profusion of deadzones which still litter the country.

In a similar vein, using the cloud for all your storage needs means putting an awful lot of faith in tech companies. Even the mighty Google caused mass hysteria when its Gmail service went down for a few hours in 2009.

As we’ve seen this past year, hackers can take down the mightiest corporate titans. Hackers sympathetic to Wikileaks went after Paypal, Bank of America, and Visa. Sony was brought to its knees by hackers, who repeatedly stole user information until Sony pulled the plug. The real kicker is that servers for Amazon’s cloud storage service were used as remote drones to carry out the assault.

Apple iCloudDespite the stormy skies, plenty of companies are doubling down on the cloud. Just last month, Apple rolled out the imaginatively named “iCloud”, which promises to bring the company’s trademark polish and seamless user experience to the crowded world of cloud services. As you’d expect, Apple’s version automatically syncs content -- music, apps, photos, etc. – between all your iDevices. Take a photo with your iPhone, and you can edit it on your Macbook and send it with your iPad. Users get a free five gigs just for showing up.

Long-time player Google is taking it a step further, using the cloud to challenge the basic foundations of computing. While millions are surfing the web with their Chrome browser, Google also recently launched a complete Chrome operating system that will serve on special “Chromebooks.” From the outside, these computers are indistinguishable from average laptops, but open them up and you’ll find a dramatically different experience. There are no desktops, no cute little icons, no hard-drives – only the web. A Chromebook does everything, from typing to playing music, via web-based apps and the cloud. If successful, Google’s gamble could be the most significant change in computers since the internet.

As Mike Dungan puts it, “We’re about to head into a new stratosphere.” / Issue 124 - September 7849
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