With Apple's iCloud service out of the gate this week, there are more options than ever when it comes to keeping your head (and your data) in the clouds. Cloud computing lets you store your files, pictures, music and data remotely, allowing you to access them from anywhere. It has major conveniences for corporations and individuals alike, but there are pitfalls to avoid: from network outages to hacking concerns, it's better to be informed before you leap head-first into the cloud.
What is the Cloud?
Cloud storage and cloud computing have been buzz terms in the IT industry for a while, but now consumers are catching cloud mania — and they may not even realize it. Services like Dropbox for file-sharing, Evernote for organizing your to-do lists, SkyDrive and Carbonite for storage and back up, and even Flickr for photo sharing all let you take data off of your computer and store it remotely for access from anywhere via most devices.
Problem #1: Staying connected
The obvious pitfall of this Internet-based storage is what happens when you (or the company) loses access to the Internet. Large companies who make trades in cloud computing create complex redundancy systems to stay connected, but unexpected downtime has even hit many big players. While this downtime is usually resolved in 24 hours or less, a day without your data can be a nightmare for small companies and individuals on tight deadlines ("Sorry professor, the cloud ate my homework"). For anything particularly time sensitive, it's a good idea to keep a local copy of the data on your computer.
As for your home internet connection, if you lose access on your end, there is often a workaround. Many of these services have mobile apps for your phone or tablet that let you access your data over mobile networks. It may not be ideal, but it's worth setting up access on your phone for this reason, even if you don't plan to use the service on your mobile device regularly.
What about Hackers?
2011 has truly been the year of the hack. From colleges to the U.S. government, scores of institutions have seen data intrusions this year alone. Sony is perhaps the highest profile example of a huge hacking incident in recent memory. After hackers breached its PlayStation Network servers, they gained access to a wealth of sensitive data, like names, passwords, and other personal identifying information that users had input when signing up.
The good news is that, in spite of its dangers, the cloud is probably a safer place than the average home computer. Since cloud syncing and storage systems — from file locker Dropbox to password vault LastPass — are designed with their shortcomings in mind, they're built to be more secure than your existing home computing system. But the cloud, just like the web at large, can never be wholly safe — especially considering even the Pentagon has been infiltrated by hackers.
The Newest Cloud Service: iCloud?
In June at its World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple revealed details about iCloud, a cloud storage and syncing service that integrates closely with iTunes. iCloud is a kind of virtual locker, syncing all things iOS across your Apple gadgets. iCloud is available Wednesday, as the centerpiece of iOS 5, Apple's newest mobile operating system.
If you're a MobileMe user, you might be in for a bit of a shake up. MobileMe is Apple's popular subscription-based suite of online services, including address book syncing, Find my iPhone, and @me.com email linked with an Apple ID. With the coming of iOS 5, Apple announced that it will do away with its MobileMe service as it stands, incorporating MobileMe''s features like calendar, contact, and mail syncing into iCloud at no cost. Beyond rolling MobileMe's core features up under the new iCloud banner, the service will allow for app and data syncing across devices for your contacts, apps, and photos. The photo syncing feature will automatically store your last 1000 photos on Apple's servers for 30 days — a nice bit of buffer time as you sort out the pictures that matter.
Through iCloud, you'll be able to universally access any music you've previously purchased on iTunes across your iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. New downloads can automatically be pushed to each iOS device, keeping your stored media in perfect harmony. Apple is also offering the ability to sync your non-iTunes music into iCloud for a fee of $25 a year through a service called iTunes Match — or you can opt to keep your entire iTunes collection synced for free. iTunes Match won't be available with the launch of iOS 5, but will come with a smaller software update scheduled for later this month.
How to upgrade to iOS 5
Built into iOS 5 is the ability for "PC-free" software upgrades and wireless syncing. That means that you won't need to hunt down the USB cable for your iDevice the next time around — but for now, you'll still need to plug in to get the update. Here's how:
* Open iTunes. You'll need the latest version to update your mobile device, so that comes first.
* You should be prompted to upgrade to iTunes 10.5. If not, click iTunes at the top of the screen and then "Check for updates"
* Agree to the on-screen installation prompt, and save what you're working on (you'll be prompted to restart your computer)
* Now that iTunes is updated, plug your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch into your computer. iTunes should launch automatically once your device is recognized, but if it doesn't, go ahead and open iTunes.
* Locate your device in the left-hand column of iTunes, and click "Check for update" on the main screen under "Version"
* The screen should find an available update for iOS 5. If it doesn't, check back later. If it does, click through the on-screen prompts to initiate the installation.
Devices supported by iOS 5 include the iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, iPad, iPad 2, and the last two generations of iPod touch.
iCloud vs. Amazon and others
Apple's iCloud service will compete directly with two other major players in the cloud computing scene, Amazon Cloud Player — which launched first back in March — and Google Music Beta, Google's own cloud storage and streaming service. While the latter two services beat Apple to the punch, iCloud takes a different approach with a slant toward syncing and creating a seamless experience across your Apple devices.
In contrast, Amazon Cloud Drive is more of a straightforward storage locker for your files, whereas Google Music Beta is a music-centric cloud storage service. Before you choose to commit your time (and files) to any one cloud storage service, it's best to compare the contenders and assess your own needs (and the price!). But if your world revolves around iTunes, your iPhone, or your iPad, Apple's iCloud could be your best bet. If you're in the market for a new Kindle Fire tablet, Amazon's cloud offering might mesh well with your computing experience.
More about iCloud and cloud computing:
The ultimate beginner's guide to the iPhone
Should you upgrade to iOS 5?
Your guide to cloud storage options
12 ways iOS 5 will change the way you use your iPad