After rumors for several years that it would be getting into the cloud-computing business, tech giant Google finally launched its Google Drive last week, prompting all kinds of cloud storage and application providers to come out with announcements of their own, not wanting to be lost in the fog.
Microsoft even managed to make an announcement a day ahead of Google about "improvements" to its SkyDrive service that actually amounted to a cut in the amount of storage space offered free to new users, from 25 GB down to 7 GB—still more than Google's 5 GB, but a cut nonetheless. To be fair, there were improvements in SkyDrive's functionality and interoperability, and the cut likely was meant mainly to bring Microsoft's service more in line with other providers.
In addition to Google and Microsoft, there have been announcements or leaks over the last several days by Dropbox, Box.com, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung and LG. Some of the other players include Amazon's Cloud Drive, Apple's iCloud and Dropbox rival SugarSync. Mobile-device vendors HTC and Asus are, like Samsung and LG, also in the cloud business, as an added value to promote their smartphones and tablets.
Typically, these innovations work on a PC with an app that creates a special folder which, when a user drops a file into it, is synced to cloud storage and to any other devices registered to that account, whether another PC, a smartphone or tablet. Usually there are iPhone and/or Android apps for easily accessing the cloud through a mobile device.
Considering there had been speculation about Google getting into the business for four or five years, Google Drive seems a remarkably average offering, with price being its main selling point compared with a service like Dropbox, which helped define the category. Google Drive offers five gigabytes of free storage, with upgrades to 25 GB for $2.99 a month or 100 GB for $4.99.
And just what is that category? Wikipedia defines cloud computing as "a metaphor used by Technology or IT Services companies for the delivery of computing requirements as a service to a heterogeneous community of end-recipients."
If you don't have the foggiest notion of what that means, let's try it this way: It's taking a function usually performed by your computer and moving it instead to a server off in some nebulous location somewhere, in a cloud.
So Google Docs or Apple iWork or Microsoft Office 365 are web-based cloud applications that take the place of productivity suites like Microsoft Office that otherwise would reside on your computer. Netflix or iTunes videos or Amazon Instant Streaming are cloud replacements for your DVD or Blu-ray player.
The hot offering currently is storage, moving music, photos, videos or work documents to a cloud drive instead of your computer's hard drive. Increasingly, cloud storage and cloud applications are linked, so files stored on Google Drive or Apple's iCloud can be opened and worked in Google Docs or Apple iWork.
That in fact may be Google Drive's biggest advantage, its integration. If you use Gmail, soon you'll be able to save or send attachments directly to and from Google Drive. Google supports viewing or modifying up to 30 different file types, so, for instance, you can view a native Adobe Photoshop file in your web browser even though you don't have Photoshop installed on your computer.
For a lot of everyday work, Google and other providers are making your home computer barely relevant – you only need to be able to access the web, and all the other computing work can be done through an app launched within a browser.
Which is partly the point. Much of what is driving the explosion in cloud computing, besides lower prices for storage, is the explosion in mobile devices. What started as services aimed at being able to access work files on a computer at home or on the road now are directed at enabling smartphones and tablets, with their limited storage and horsepower, to do things for which we used to need a computer.
"Explosion" is not used lightly to describe cloud computing's growth. Leading technology-research firm Gartner predicts in a new report that by 2014, the "personal cloud" will replace the "personal computer" as the center of most digital interactions. By 2015, cloud services will be on 90 percent of personal technology devices, whether PC, smartphone, tablet or even smart TV. Consumers will be able to store, connect, stream or synchronize content across any of those platforms and at different locations.
It's the decline of one PC and the rise of another, the personal cloud.