Introducing….the Cloud

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First, a note: Last week, I said that we would talk about buying music online and introduce “the cloud” in this post. As I wrote, I realized that it was too much information and should be split in two. So, this week we’ll introduce the cloud and next week we’ll talk about buying any kind of downloadable media – ebooks, audiobooks, music, videos and more. Thanks, and on into the cloud!

Cloud Computing Explained

What Is It?

The short answer is that “the cloud” is just a group of computers that store information and run software and applications for you, without you having to own or take care of those computers. You can access the information or use the applications from any device with an internet connection, and can upload and download your stuff from wherever you are.

This is what makes the cloud so useful – suddenly, you don’t need a powerful, expensive computer to do some really neat things. If you buy music, videos or books, you can keep them online and have them wherever you need them, but not require a lot of storage space on your own device. If you use multiple computers for work, you can put your files somewhere where you can get to them and not have to keep saving or emailing different versions back and forth. If you’re a small business, you can even rent a part of someone else’s powerful computers just for the space and time it takes you to do what you want, saving on business costs.

How Is It Useful?

Over our lessons, we’ve seen several tools that involve the cloud. All of them are made more useful because you can access them from anywhere. For a few examples, look at:

All of Amazon’s digital services now offer the option of saving either direct to a computer or to their Cloud Drive, so you can access your music and videos from any device you own. (More on this next week when we talk about buying downloadable media.) This fall, Apple introduces its iCloud service: if you use Apple devices, you can move files off of your computer and up to the cloud, where they are stored and easily shared between your Mac computer, your iPad and your iPhone. Everything you need, all in one place, accessible with whatever device you have in hand. Useful, eh?

In our previous post on music libraries, we mentioned that new tools are out there to let you see your home music library remotely. Yup, you guessed it – this is part of the cloud, too, but a private part that you can control.

Services like Subsonic and Spotify can be used like other music library programs, and also let you securely access your home music collection from remote internet-connected locations. (Spotify is also a source for streaming music, as we mentioned in our online radio post.) As long as the computer that stores your music is on and connected to the internet, you can log in to the service you use and play your tunes wherever you are. You can also choose to share your collections with friends and family by inviting them in. Note: You are not making your music collections public, unless you change the privacy settings to make that so.

Try It Out

You’re probably already using part of the cloud and didn’t realize it. Do you have Gmail, Yahoo! Mail or another web-based email service? That’s the cloud – you’re not storing those messages on your computer, someone else is storing them for you. Use Flickr or Picasa for your photos? Same thing. Has someone shared a Google Document with you, a spreadsheet, document or presentation? Also the cloud.

If you have an iPhone or an iPad, you’re using the cloud all the time. The cloud is what makes it possible for the iPad to be so small and lightweight and yet be so powerful. And, in the fall of 2011, Apple is going to officially launch its iCloud service to bring the cloud to all Apple devices.

The next time you use a mobile or web-based service, think about what parts of it might be in the cloud and what parts live on your computer or phone. The answer will certainly surprise you.

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