What is the cloud, and what does it mean?
A lot of people are talking about the cloud right now - and I don't mean Michael Fish.
It's a new technology that's starting to change the way many of us live our lives. And if you have a broadband connection, it's almost certainly going to affect yours too.
But what is "the cloud"?
That's a good question - but the cloud isn't really just one particular "thing". It's a concept rather than a product, and people and businesses often use it to mean different things - in many ways the term is as fluffy and intangible as the clouds in the sky themselves.
The simplest explanation (and the one we're going with) is this: the cloud lets you access digital content - be it movies, documents or entire applications - via the internet.
Traditionally, computer programs and content like movies and music would be stored on your computer. With cloud computing, the data isn't installed to your hard drive. Instead, it's kept on a company's computer system and delivered to your screen over the web.
Cloud services are everywhere. Catch-up TV platforms like iPlayer and 4oD use the cloud. On-demand movie services like Netflix and LOVEFiLM also use the cloud. Web-based email services like Hotmail and Gmail are (you guessed it) also based on the cloud. So chances are that you've used the cloud.
The "cloud" has been a buzzword in the business world for a number of years, but now it's starting to penetrate the mass consciousness. And that's not surprising - with more and more homes having access to broadband internet, increasingly elaborate cloud services are becoming viable for day-to-day life. And they're starting to have a transformative effect on both how we work and how we play.
Fun and games
If you think of a type of entertainment, there's a good chance it's now been delivered through the cloud and accessible within mere seconds.
Take music for example. Where once, we had to download tracks and albums before we could listen to them, now we can instantly listen online through services like Spotify and Grooveshark. Whether we want to hear something by the latest X Factor winner, or the greatest hits of David Hasselhoff, we can have it in seconds. I'm not saying we'd necessarily want to, but we could.
Internet video services may have become even bigger than music. Online catch-up services like BBC iPlayer and on-demand video services like Netflix - which lets you stream unlimited TV shows and movies for a set monthly fee - are rapidly changing the way we watch things. Increasing numbers are using cloud-based services to watch what they want, whenever they want.
And that freedom is expanded by the fact that we're no longer stuck with just one device for different pieces of entertainment. Because nothing is stored locally, many cloud services can deliver content to tablets, smartphones, TVs, games consoles - and the list's expanding. Take Apple's much-vaunted iCloud for example. If you read a book on your iPhone, you can pick it up, from the same page, on your iPad or iMac.
In short, the cloud gives us more choice in how we consume entertainment. And as it turns out, we like choice. We like it alot.
Look how catch-up TV services have taken off, for example. In the first week after Christmas, 2011, for example, more than 80 million catch-up TV apps for smartphones were downloaded. BBC iPlayer was downloaded 22,000 on Christmas Day alone, and the service is so popular that it's actually caused problems as some providers' networks have struggled to cope with the demand.
And take Netflix - within a month of the service launching in the UK, that it had seen a significant jump in data usage across its network. The provider's conclusion: "a lot of people clearly like what they're seeing."
How the cloud has changed how we work
It's hard to argue that the cloud not having an effect on how we work - making it easier for us to work and collaborate together on projects.
For example, most of us are familiar with office applications like word processors, spreadsheets. These tools are now available through the cloud - Google Docs or Microsoft Office Web Apps for example - giving us the option to work on content from any web-connected location as opposed to just the machine the software's installed on.
Cloud storage is another major development, and one that more and more companies are starting to offer. Your content - be it documents, photos, videos or anything else - can be stored in the cloud, making it accessible from anywhere you're connected.
That means no more carrying eminently-losable USB sticks or CDs around if you need to work on the move - so long as you can connect to the web, you can access your files from anywhere.
But it's the business world where the cloud's proving really useful. In a time when companies are doing everything they can to cut costs, the cloud is seen as a potential solution.
Instead of spending excessive amounts of money on the software they need, it's often cheaper for a business to get the same products delivered through the cloud. There's less maintenance, less complicated (and expensive) licensing issues - basically, it has the potential to be much cheaper and much easier.
Dark clouds above
So the cloud is great. Services are cheaper, easier, more convenient - who knows, we might even be heading to an entirely cloud-based future, right?
Well, no - at least not for a long time. As good as cloud services can be, there's a lot to suggest that we're not quite ready to rely on it yet.
For one thing, people like stuff. They like tangible things that they can touch and prod. For many people, online content doesn't seem "real". When you buy a DVD, you have the product right there in your hands, but buy a flick through the internet, and it's just data - it's hard for people to equate value with something they can't hold. It's a change of mindset that will probably come - but not for some time yet.
A more serious problem is that you're putting a lot of responsibility in the hands of the companies that provide the services over the cloud. And that raises difficult questions - what happens if you want to move all your content to another provider?
What are you meant to do if their systems go down and your content becomes unavailable? Come to that, you're also in trouble if your internet goes down. In short, you're giving up control for convenience - and for some people that might be a trade-off they don't want to make.
But the biggest problem facing cloud services is that the UK's broadband infrastructure just isn't ready to support them. Many require fast, reliable connections and while that's very possible in urban areas, there's significant chunks of the country that can't get the necessary speeds to make online services practical.
Rural areas in particular suffer, with some getting speeds as low as 0.5Mb.
Things are getting better - the government has set aside £530million to stimulate improvements to our country's broadband infrastructure - but it's going to take time. Until it does, the cloud's essentially a luxury for those of us with fast and reliable enough broadband to benefit from it.
Cloudy with a chance of rain?
Britain's uneven broadband infrastructure aside, you can expect cloud services to become an increasingly large part of our day to day lives in the coming years. They almost certainly play a role already, whether you realise it or not.
The country's broadband is slowly getting better, and as it improves, more and more services will appear that give us greater flexibility in how we work and greater choice in how we play.
So remember: the future's looking cloudy, and it's looking pretty bright.