The "cloud" continues to garner attention, and usage, in the world of computers and digital devices. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of Gmail, perhaps the most popular cloud service today.
Cloud computing is the latest incarnation of an old concept in computerdom, the use of remote computer services. Instead of using big, complex programs on your desktop computer, your organization's network server, or your tablet or phone, and instead of needing lots of processing power and storage space at your location, with cloud computing you use resources offered over the Internet by a service provider.
The Internet, thus, is the cloud, or more precisely it's the computer servers that you access remotely.
When Google launched its Gmail "webmail" service in 2004 (mail.google.com), Gmail wasn't the first cloud service, email or otherwise. Yahoo Mail (mail.yahoo.com) had been around since 1997, while Hotmail, which Microsoft currently calls Outlook.com (outlook.com), had been around since 1996.
Even after Gmail launched, it took about two years for the term "cloud computing" to come into popular usage. This occurred when Amazon.com introduced its Elastic Compute Cloud (aws.amazon.com/ec2), which is a way for businesses to rent as much or as little processing power and storage space they need to run computer applications remotely.
Gmail is the biggest email service on the planet, with more than 300 million subscribers taking advantage of the free advertising-based offering. Although Gmail is web-based, you can optionally use traditional "client" email software on your own computer such as Mozilla Thunderbird to send and retrieve messages, which can be more convenient.
If you work with Gmail within your web browser, taking advantage of its keyboard shortcuts can save you time. Press R for reply, Ctrl-K to insert a link, or Ctrl-Enter to send. To see other shortcuts from a pop-up list, press Shift-? within your Gmail inbox.
One of the best features of Gmail is its superb spam filtering. It also does a good job with security, encrypting messages sent and received. You have up to 15 gigabytes of free storage space for messages and their attachments (plus other Google documents you store), with paid plans available for up to 30 terabytes.
Gmail is part of Google's other cloud services, including Google Docs (docs.google.com), Google Drive (drive.google.com), Google+ Photos (plus.google.com/photos), and Google Calendar (google.com/calendar). Google Docs is a suite of applications, including a word processing, presentation, and spreadsheet program that you access through your web browser. Google Drive is a file storage and synchronization service, allowing you to back up files as well as access them from multiple locations using more than one computer or digital device.
Cloud computing has its benefits. It can save money and time, since you delegate updating and troubleshooting software to the service provider. Large companies have gravitated more to cloud computing, but it also can benefit smaller companies, home-based businesses, and home and school users. For individuals it appears to be most beneficial for those who do a lot of traveling.
With cloud computing, you need to trust that your Internet connection won't go down for any appreciable length of time and that computer resources from your service provider will be available when you need them.
Some cloud services have had minor issues. Hackers gained access to a small percentage of users' accounts of the popular cloud storage and synchronization service Dropbox.com two years ago. The popular cloud video streaming services Netflix (netflix.com) and Amazon Prime (amazon.com/gp/prime) have gone down at busy times. Gmail itself has been out of service for brief periods as a result of lightning storms.
Among those who support it, cloud computing represents a paradigm shift no less significant than the move away from mainframe computers to PCs in the 1980s. Cloud computing is made possible by the increasing availability of high-bandwidth Internet access for individuals as well as organizations. Its proponents often use the analogy of the electricity grid. Just as with electricity, computer services are there when you need them, and if there's a charge, you pay for just what you use.
Some pundits predict that cloud computing will replace traditional computing, though this is far from clear.
Ten years ago, Google announced the availability of Gmail on April 1, April Fools' Day, along with a job opening with Google on the Moon. Google is known for its April Fools' pranks. Gmail was in "beta," or testing phase, for nearly five years, all the while gaining in popularity, and it has turned out to be anything but a joke.
Reid Goldsborough is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.