A term being bantered about a good deal since Apple’s iPhone 3G release has been that of "cloud computing." Essentially cloud computing is when the data that you work with — contacts, bookmarks, email, calendaring, etc. — is accessible though an Internet connection and with several devices.
There are three ways of taking advantage of this idea of cloud computing: data completely in the cloud, local applications that utilize some data in the clouds with some local, and being your own cloud where you provide the local data from your device to a service.
With mobile devices now gaining better browsers, broadband-like speeds, and the services to tie these together, it’s a good idea to take a look at the advantages and what is possible.
Completely in the Cloud
Google Apps is an example of cloud computing where both the data and the application to access that data sits online. The only common denominator here is the fact that devices use web browsers to access the data. Because web browsers have differing abilities, the onus for making the content retrievable is on Google, or other web application service providers.
The major benefit of this type of cloud computing is that there is no need to sync anything. All data is always synced because it is always sitting in the same place: on a web server. Usually, there is some ability to download XML-based file formats of this data so that you can backup or import it into another service if you choose to move, though.
The negative of this is similar to the benefit. Because the information sits on another’s server, you do not technically own the data. It might be yours by basis of association and user name, but there are usually terms in your contract that do not give you completely free reign over what you can do with the information, as it is stored on a company’s server.
Cloud Computing with Islands
The second type of cloud computing is one that many mobile users are quite familiar with. This is when you use a local application to create, edit, and store information that is then synced to a central server. From that central server, you are able to pull that information into various devices or services. Apple’s newly announced MobileMe as well as Microsoft Exchange are examples of this.
While local applications are key for this types of cloud computing, they are not totally essential. Like Google Apps, MS Exchange and MobileMe are services that can be accessed through a web browser. While the experience might be different from one browser to another, usually the entire functionality exists to do all that you want to do.
The main benefit for these kinds of cloud computing applications is that a person can access a service, such as their Outlook calendar, on a home computer, but then also access it to make a change from a work computer without installing software. In addition, mobile device integration enables these services to have reach similar to Google Apps, except the experience is not limited to the browser only. Applications that have access to the sync protocols are able to tie into the syncing service for ease of use.
The main benefit of these types of services is that your information is literally accessible anywhere with or without an Internet connection. Syncing is only a matter of making sure you have the correct device and credentials, and that is pretty much it. Also, moving to a new mobile device is made easier as all you have to do is input the sync credentials and then all the information is pulled from the server to the new device.
The main negative to these types of services is the same as with those which lie completely in the cloud: the information passes through a third party server. There is often some nominal fee for the service, and this normally only accounts for hosting and access. In corporate settings, IT administrators are able to use these services to manage several devices at once, making privacy a concern if the device is used for both work and play.
Cloud Computing with Your Own Cloud/Island
There is a third type of cloud computing that is fairly new on the scene, but will likely see some uptake as mobile devices become more powerful and data networks become more adept at handling large amounts of content. This type of cloud computing uses the mobile device as the web server and then makes the content available through a web browser to other connected devices.
Unlike the other two examples, information is stored on a mobile device, and allowance for entry into areas of information are set by that mobile device.
Nokia has developed a product called the Mobile Web Server (Beta) which turns a Symbian S60 smartphone into a web server capable of hosting a website containing local personal information such as SMS messages, calendar, contacts, and images.
Compared to the other examples of cloud computing, this method keeps personal information completely under the control of the mobile user. In addition, personalization of areas of the website, such as look-and-feel and content, are placed in the hands of the mobile user to extend to their audience.
The downsides are that current mobile devices are barely capable of maintaining the heavy load of being both an outgoing communications platform (voice, email, SMS, etc.) and an incoming one as well. In addition, the cost for maintaining a constant high-speed wireless data connection varies greatly, and is not usually the most cost-effective approach.
Three Types of Clouds, Choose Your Cover
Those are the three ways in which mobile device users can manage information while leveraging the connectivity that wireless networks and advanced browsers bring. In choosing how to approach this aspect of mobile computing, it is best to know what is out there in terms of options for interacting with the cloud, and then choose carefully whose hands you want seeing your data in order to access it everywhere.