To know how you’ll be using computers and the Internet in the coming years, it’s instructive to consider the Google employee: most of his software and data–from pictures and videos, to presentations and e-mails–reside on the Web. This makes the digital stuff that’s valuable to him equally accessible from his home computer, a public Internet café, or a Web-enabled phone. It also makes damage to a hard drive less important. Recently, Sam Schillace, the engineering director in charge of collaborate Web applications at Google, needed to reformat a defunct hard drive from a computer that he used for at least six hours a day. Reformatting, which completely erases all the data from a hard drive, would cause most people to panic, but it didn’t bother Schillace. “There was nothing on it I cared about” that wasn’t accessible on the Web, he says.
Schillace’s digital life, for the most part, exists on the Internet; he practices what is considered by many technology experts to be cloud computing. Google already lets people port some of their personal data to the Internet and use its Web-based software. Google Calendar organizes events, Picasa stores pictures, YouTube holds videos, Gmail stores e-mails, and Google Docs houses documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. But according to a Wall Street Journal story, the company is expected to do more than offer scattered puffs of cloud computing: it will launch a service next year that will let people store the contents of entire hard drives online. Google doesn’t acknowledge the existence of such a service. In an official statement, the company says, “Storage is an important component of making Web apps fit easily into consumers’ and business users’ lives … We’re always listening to our users and looking for ways to update and improve our Web applications, including storage options, but we don’t have anything to announce right now.” Even so, many people in the industry believe that Google will pull together its disparate cloud-computing offerings under a larger umbrella service, and people are eager to understand the consequences of such a project.
To be sure, Google isn’t the only company invested in online storage and cloud computing. There are other services today that offer a significant amount of space and software in the cloud. Amazon’s Simple Storage Service, for instance, offers unlimited and inexpensive online storage ($0.15 per gigabyte per month). AOL provides a service called Xdrive with a capacity of 50 gigabytes for $9.95 per month (the first five gigabytes are free). And Microsoft offers Windows Live SkyDrive, currently in beta, with a one-gigabyte free storage limit.
But Google is better positioned than most to push cloud computing into the mainstream, says Thomas Vander Wal, founder of Infocloud Solutions, a cloud-computing consultancy. First, millions of people already use Google’s online services and store data on its servers through its software. Second, Vander Wal says that the culture at Google enables his team to more easily tie together the pieces of cloud computing that today might seem a little scattered. He notes that Yahoo, Microsoft, and Apple are also sitting atop huge stacks of people’s personal information and a number of online applications, but there are barriers within each organization that could slow down the process of integrating these pieces. “It could be,” says Vander Wal, “that Google pushes the edges again where everybody else has been stuck for a while.”
One of the places where Google, in particular, could have a large impact is integrating cloud computing into mobile devices, says Vander Wal. The company recently announced Android, a platform that allows people to build software for a variety of mobile phones. The alliance could spur the creation of mobile applications geared toward cloud computing, he says. People want to seamlessly move their data between computers, the Web, and phones, Vander Wal adds. “If Google is starting to solve that piece of the problem, it could have an impact because that’s something no one’s been able to do yet.”