What cloud computing means to you
New services let you save hard drive space while enjoying movies and music.
A top-notch MP3 player can hold as many as 40,000 songs; a good e-reader, 3,500 books. But many consumers say they want room for more -- and others wish they could read that book from, say, their computer, too.
They're about to get just that as more content providers allow people to store more of their media online and access it from anywhere.
Enter one of the big buzz words at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show: cloud computing. Chances are, you've seen the catchy ads on television for the concept, like the one featuring a couple stuck in an airport heading to "the cloud" to watch episodes of their favorite shows. Post continues after video.
But this isn't any ordinary cumulonimbus. Simply put, cloud computing is a moniker for Web-based services that store your digital files -- from videos and songs to books and personal photos -- remotely and offer you access from multiple devices through a browser or downloadable app.
For consumers who use on-demand or streaming services like TiVo, Amazon On Demand and iTunes, it's a cost-saver. As content providers start to use cloud technology to supplement those services, a purchased movie or music file would reside in the "cloud" rather than take up precious space on your hard drive, and in some cases, slowing down your device.
And better yet, you can access that video or song from any Internet-connected device -- not just your iPod or laptop.
Right now, saving data in the cloud is cheap, in small batches. Gmail, for example, offers users more than 7.5GB free, with additional space available for purchase, starting at $5 per year for an extra 20GB -- space that could store up to 13 full-length movies, for example. Other companies are likely to follow similar models, says Gartner analyst David Smith, or wrap costs into the regular subscription fees for buying the videos, music and other items.
The implications of cloud media for consumers are twofold. Not only does that remote storage make it less devastating to have a device stolen, lost or damaged, consumers could also get by with a smaller hard drive and a less powerful processor, says Kurt Scherf, a principal analyst with Parks Associates. That could cut the price to buy devices, and reduce the need for extras like extended warranties, which can cost up to $500 for three years on a $1,000 laptop.
It's not an entirely new concept, points out Smith -- although its uses are expanding. If you've ever subscribed to Web-based e-mail service like Gmail or Yahoo, banked online or browsed Facebook, you've used cloud technology. "We're not at the point where we're using the cloud for everything," but will likely be soon, he says. People upload a few photos to photo-sharing site Flickr, (yup, that's cloud tech, too) but not their entire photo libraries, for example.
Analysts have repeatedly conjectured that Apple and Google could both soon announce cloud-based music storage services. Trade group Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem has been working with movie studios and gadget manufacturers to create a content license format and hardware that let consumers, once they buy a title, access it on any device they own.
Plenty of gadget-makers have devices to pitch content providers, too. Pre-CES announcements included a plug-and-play USB stick from HSTi that pulls streaming video stored on the cloud.
Other new cloud services will be ready for consumers to access by the spring. Wireless provider Cricket this week began rolling out a plan that includes music downloads stored on the cloud, while Vizio is putting video game system OnLive's content on its Web-connected TVs, computers and phones -- letting gamers play from anywhere. Backup service SugarSync is talking up its 5GB free cloud music storage with unlimited streaming.
Gadget-makers are also moving into the cloud space as a kind of bridge between third-party backup services and personal hard drives, letting consumers create their own controllable cloud with a hard drive attached to their home network. One example: the hard drives and Web TV boxes Iomega introduced earlier this week, starting at $170 for one terabyte. Owners can invite up to 250 people or devices to remotely access content on the little cloud.
But cloud media still faces some hurdles -- namely, content provider-imposed limits on capacity and bandwidth, Smith says. Without that connection to your content, the gadgets would be little more than paperweights. (This is where you'll regret giving up that unlimited data plan on your phone.)
A slow Internet connection may also make the experience less than ideal, although most cloud services automatically adjust for the connection's speed so that the quality stays consistent, Scherf says. In other words, it may take longer to start that episode of "30 Rock," but you shouldn't be left waiting for the punch line while the TV or computer catches up.
Remote storage in the cloud also raises privacy and security concerns, because you're not in control over most measures protecting it, says Amber Yoo, a spokeswoman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer advocacy group. Read the fine print to find out who can access your content, and what will happen to it if the company storing it goes under, she advises.
Consider retaining any sensitive material on a computer or other hard drive at home, where you can provide virtual padlocks, including a firewall and password protection.
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