When Merlin Mann is on the go and needs to access his computer information he steps into the cloud.
Mann, a 41-year-old technology blogger, is one of thousands of Americans who are shunning packaged software in favour of programmes served up as services available on the internet.
Technology titans including Microsoft, Google, Apple and Yahoo! are part of what has become known as the “cloud computing” movement, increasingly popular with users such as Mann.
Salesforce.com is a cloud-computing poster child, reporting at the mid-point of the year that it is on pace to become the first software-as-a-service (SaaS) firm to top a billion dollars in annual revenues.
“Our second-quarter performance is a milestone for Salesforce.com, and for the cloud-computing industry,” chief executive Marc Benioff said after releasing earnings figures in August.
Technology companies and computer enthusiasts alike have long been trying to achieve a nirvana of having access to information anywhere and at any time, unchaining themselves from machines at their homes or offices.
Speedy computer chips, cheap prices for memory, “smart” mobile devices, and high-speed internet connections have made that techno-paradise possible.
People already commonly use cloud computing in the form of web-based email services, social networking profiles and photo-sharing websites such as Yahoo!-owned Flickr.
MySpace Music that launched on Thursday lets users keep songs “in the cloud” and stream them to any computer linked to the internet.
Cloud computing appeals to users because it relieves them of having to buy, install and maintain software programmes, which are instead hosted on computer servers updated and guarded by internet firms.
Some are leery of cloud computing because it puts control of cherished data in the hands of companies that run the servers, raising questions about privacy and what happens when there are hardware or internet problems.
“You don’t know where your data is really being stored,” Danny O’Brien of the internet rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation said.
“In the old days when you were working on a Word document, you knew it was on your computer. Who do you want to have control over that information?”
‘They’re easy to use, and they’re fast’
Internet companies riding the cloud-computing wave believe people are surrendering those apprehensions as technology and online services become more common and tightly woven into their lives.
Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook have forged technologies allowing users access to information virtually anywhere in the world with an internet connection.
“There was a lot of scepticism when webmail started coming out, saying they were too simple and didn’t have the same features as desktop applications,” Google Collaborative Applications Engineering director Sam Schillace said.
“But they completely overshadowed the desktop market because they’re easy to use, and they’re fast.”
Schillace describes Google’s success with online applications such as Docs and Spreadsheets as paralleling advances in web browsers.
“The web browser as a platform is just starting to come out as a credible application platform,” Shillace said.
“Now you have the confidence that you can sit down at any computer that will let you access your data in any way.”
In June of this year, Google released a Google Gears application that allows users to access, update and queue changes in Google Documents, Spreadsheets and Mail without an internet connection.
When those applications reconnect to the internet they automatically synchronise changes with data stored online.
In July, Apple released a MobileMe suite of online applications that let users update calendars, address books and access files from either their iPhone or computer.
Changes are synched automatically whenever an internet connection is present.
Microsoft recently released Live Mesh, which allows people to access their home computers or a series of machines from anywhere on the internet, essentially giving them mobile control of networks.
Cloud computing has had its stumbles.
Amazon’s S3 web service broke earlier this year, leaving thousands of users, small businesses, and even the New York Times‘s archives without access to their data.
After Apple’s MobileMe subscription-based online applications service launched in July it was vexed by bugs that needed fixing.
In the middle of August, Google’s free web-based GMail was inaccessible for nearly four hours.
“It’s the price of doing everything on the internet right now,” said author Paul Bausch, co-founder of the Internet firm Blogger, which was bought by Google.
“Just like spam is the price of using email, they’re just things we have to put up with.” — AFP