The Cloud and What it Means to You

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No doubt you’ve heard the term Cloud Computing the past few years – Everything from Microsoft’s “To the Cloud” commercials to Apple’s iCloud services released with the latest iPhone and iPad devices.  But what does it all mean to you, the consumer?  Are you using the Cloud already?  Is this something you have to buy?  In short, what is it and what does it do for me?

What is the Cloud and Why do I Need it?

From the consumer perspective, the Cloud is the place where all your digital devices go for their content.  Whether it’s reading e-mail, downloading movies, sharing photos, or socializing with your friends, the Cloud enables you to access your “digital life” from anywhere, using any device.  And the Cloud helps you manage all this information and share it with others.

The Cloud isn’t something you necessarily buy or install.  Rather, it’s the collection of services available on the Internet to allow you to manage your digital life.  The truth is, you’ve been using the Cloud for many years.  For most people, our first foray into the Cloud was using web-based e-mail services such as Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, or Gmail.  Then, as digital cameras became popular, many of us began uploading and sharing our photos online at sites such as Flickr and Snapfish.  Then our attention moved towards video and sites like Youtube and Dailymotion were born to serve our needs.  And more recently, the social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have given us the ability to foster social communities and re-connect with friends and family.

So, in many ways, the Cloud is likely part of your everyday life already.  But the big difference today is that, instead of separate websites and applications and devices all geared towards managing one aspect of your digital life, most of these avenues are crossing paths and converging to make it seamless for you to connect and share across your myriad of internet-enabled devices.  In particular, as smart phones and tablets make getting online easier, cheaper, and more portable, the need to access our data from anywhere has become more critical for us to be able to communicate. 

So the Cloud you see and hear about today in all those commercials is really the convergence of many separate avenues of communication and sharing coming together seamlessly to make it easier for you to manage your digital life.

Nothing is Truly Free

So many of the services we described as being part of the Cloud are free –they don’t cost you anything to use (not counting your internet or mobile service fees).  As long you have a device with a web browser and internet connection, you can pretty much access these applications from anywhere.  But, in addition to the service fees to enable your device to connect, there are other costs to using the Cloud.  Some services place size limits or other restrictions that may require you to upgrade to a higher tier of service, for which you may have to pay an additional fee.  One example is Applie’s iCloud, which comes with 5GB of storage space.  If you need more, you will have to pay Apple for it. 

But in many cases, the price for you to use Cloud services may not even involve money.  The currency of the Cloud is more often than not something very personal to you.  Indeed, the cost of these services is often your personal information. 

Beware or Be-Aware?

Much as the television networks rely on advertisers to buy commercials to fund the programs you watch, the model for many Cloud based services is the same.  That is, the Cloud application providers rely on advertising dollars to fund their businesses.  The advertisers rely on these businesses to provide them with information about their users in order to deliver targeted advertising to you.  And these Cloud applications, depending on what you’ve shared with them, contain vast amounts of information about you.  These include everything from your gender, race, and religious affiliation, to more personal information such as where you went on your recent trip or even where you are right now. 

The details of what data Cloud applications gather and retain about you is covered in their privacy policy.  This policy is readily available on their websites, often as a link at the bottom of the page and/or as part of the terms of service you accept when registering to use the service.  We can’t cover exactly what is in written in each of these policies, but generally speaking, they will contain information specifying the types of data they collect, how it is used, who has access to it, your ability to control this information, and how to opt-in, opt-out, delete, or deactivate your account.

More often than not, applications collect information in aggregate, meaning they gather the information from many people, but it is difficult to trace that data back to any specific individual.  So, for example, they might let an advertiser know the total number of users living in your zip code, but not necessarily tell the advertiser that you live in that zip code.  This type of data is useful to advertisers so they can target specific ads to specific market segments.  But understand that this level of targeting can get pretty personal.  For example, if you recently exchanged e-mails with your friends about planning a trip to Europe, don’t be surprised to see ads for European vacations appear next your e-mail messages.

Also, it’s important to understand that Cloud companies provide many services and may share information across all their applications.  So if the company that provides your web e-mail service is also your favorite search engine and owns your favorite photo and video sharing sites, you may notice ads that are tied closely to your recent activity and interests shared across these applications.  For example, your social network profile may say you like golf, and you recently did searches about golf clubs, and you watched videos about how to improve your golf swing, don’t be surprised if ads related to golf start appearing in all these applications.

This is all done to make the experience more relevant and personalized to your tastes and interests.  But it’s important for you to understand what data is being collected and how it is being used so that you can better control what is being done in the Cloud with your information.  Additionally, it’s important for you, the consumer, to know that whatever you post to the Cloud is no longer directly in your control and so has the possibility of being made available to people (or companies or governments)  without your consent.  So always think twice about what you share in the Cloud.

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