The term "cloud computing" refers to situations where your data and programs are stored at some Internet-accessible location rather than on your local computer. In a traditional situation, you might use a program like Microsoft Word to edit a document on your computer. It would be kept on your computer unless you decided to e-mail it to someone, burn it onto a disk, or what have you.
In a cloud computing scenario, you might use the web site Google Documents to create and edit a word processing file on Google's servers. You can collaborate on the document -- give your co-workers or friends access to it and let them make changes -- and you can access the document from any Internet access point -- your home computer, your work computer, even a tablet or a smartphone.
Some types of cloud computing have seen quicker and wider adoption than others. There are people who don't mind entrusting Picasa or Flickr with their photos who would rather keep working on their word processing or spreadsheets locally.
When online word processors were first introduced, they tended to be clunky and underpowered compared to their desktop counterparts, although they've improved dramatically. The latest versions of Microsoft Office even offer a kind of best-of-both-worlds approach that integrates online versions with local software, letting you use whichever system makes sense for a particular document and giving you a sense of consistency between the two interfaces.
But cloud computing requires a certain amount of confidence in your provider. You wouldn't want to entrust sensitive personal or business information to just any web site across which you happen to stumble. Do you trust them to keep your data secure, and private? Are you using passwords properly?
And there's no guarantee that your provider won't change rules or prices or formats at some point down the road.
Last week, someone leaked a PowerPoint slide from an internal meeting at Yahoo!, which seemed to indicate that the company's bookmark storage and sharing service, Delicious.com, was about to be shut down. When tech news sites and bloggers reported this, it set off a panic among Delicious users. Pinboard (pinboard.in), which I mentioned back in September as an alternative to Delicious (I have been using it myself), got so many new customers last week, abandoning the Delicious ship, that it had to temporarily turn off some of its search features just to stay online and handle the unexpected traffic. I believe they're back to normal now.
The day after the panic, Yahoo! made an announcement that it was not shutting down Delicious but rather looking to sell it. The announcement scolded the tech press for its overreaction. But Yahoo's delay in reacting to the news indicated to some that the original reports had been right and Yahoo's announcement might have been a tactical retreat, a response to the anger and annoyance of Delicious customers.
This is exactly the type of situation that gives people pause about putting too much of their information into the cloud.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that there's no guarantee you won't lose your locally-stored documents either, unless you consistently back them up at an off-site location -- which, for most people, means using a third party like Mozy or Carbonite, and that gets you right back to some of the same concerns about using a third-party storage provider in the cloud.
It's probably not a bad idea to combine local and online storage, in whatever form, for your most important data. Also, make sure that any cloud service you use has a powerful and easy-to-use export feature to let you easily move your data to another service (or make a copy of it for safekeeping) should that become necessary.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.