To the cloud?

If you’ve watched TV lately, you’ve probably seen Microsoft’s “to the cloud” commercials. So what is “the cloud” they’re talking about and why should you care about it?

Basically, the cloud is just another name for the Internet. Since you’re reading this on a website right now, you are “in the cloud.” what most people are referring to when they are talking about the cloud is cloud computing. For several years, businesses and consumers have been steadily moving to integrate more cloud computing into their technology use. The idea is simple…instead of your computer doing the work, storing the files or providing the security, you are connecting to other computers or servers. These typically are more powerful, have more storage and have more advanced security. The software applications, services or storage are provided by a third party for a fee or for free and shared by many users.

Free email services were among the first widely adopted uses of cloud computing. Hotmail, Yahoo mail and Gmail are all cloud-based email services. Google has been one of the biggest drivers of cloud computing, following Gmail with other free cloud-based offerings including Google Docs, Google Apps and Picasa. Now Google has pushed the cloud envelope a little further with Chrome OS, a cloud-type operating system, which will be available on laptops next year.

Even though Microsoft is behind the “to the cloud” ads, they have long been the kings of shrink-wrapped software (software you buy and install on your computer), which is really the opposite of cloud-based. They are now on the cloud bandwagon and expect to see more cloud offerings from them, including a cloud-based version of Office. However, Microsoft has taken advantage of the fact that while many people have heard of the cloud; they didn’t know exactly what it was. This has led many to believe that Microsoft invented or owns the cloud or that the cloud is just about document sharing or photo editing.

The reality is that cloud computing already offers low cost, on-demand, enterprise-level software and storage that is available today to small business, big corporations and individual consumers. As for what’s coming, expect that “the cloud” will soon be the main way we all work with technology. Ready for the cloud right now? Check out this list of the top cloud computing companies:

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