Cloud apps: the future or just a passing fad?

Cloud, cloud, cloud, cloud, cloud. This fairly innocuous word has become one that is bandied around with abandon, often with the misplaced notion that it adds an element of 'cool' that was not previously present. But is working in the cloud all it's cracked up to be? Is it necessary? Should you care about it?

You don't have to think back all that far to remember a time when simply being online seemed like a fairly alien concept -- never mind actually working online. When the concept of Active Desktop was added to Windows 9x the notion of staying online throughout the day just to see the desktop update with the latest weather forecast, news, stock prices or other data was unimaginable.

These were the days of dialup connections; every minute online cost money and downloading files of almost any size was a somewhat painful experience.

For home users, the thought of using software that was not installed locally seemed incredibly futuristic.

Software as a service was very much in its infancy and few people could imagine that in just a few short years internet connections would have become fast enough and stable enough to be used to deliver not just downloadable files, but also streaming videos and music, on-demand television shows and even online word processors, image editors and much, much more.

But all of these things are now available to virtually everyone -- and for the most part they are available completely free of charge. In some instances the concept of working online has become so commonplace that it's easy to take some services for granted.

It's likely the only time you really think about Gmail consciously is when you find yourself somewhere remote enough to be devoid of wifi networks and data connections.

The prevalence of online tools -- particularly those from Google -- means that it is very easy to take them for granted, but also become blinkered and forget just what is possible. Spend a moment thinking about Google Drive.

Put aside any anti-Google prejudices you may have and just consider what an astonishing piece of technology it is. Anyone with an internet connected computer can create a free account and then create, edit, store and share documents online.

The only software that's needed is a web browser, everything else is taken care of by Google's servers. How cool is that? Never forget to be astonished by the web.

With an online word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and drawing tool -- and your inbox not far behind -- Google is a great starting point for anyone looking to start working in the cloud. Of course, it is far from being the end of the story, and there are certainly better tools available in each of these categories, but they are a great first point of entry.

These are not just online versions of applications you need to use every day, the fact that they are online tools means that it is possible to introduce features such as collaborative working and much more.

Need an image editor? There are plenty to choose from, Aviary is a great example, but even Adobe has got in on the act and made a version of Photoshop available online.

Received a file that is in a format you don't have the software to open? Rather than seeking out the program you need, you could instead turn to any of a number of online conversion tools which will quickly and painlessly provide you with a file you can open up online or using your preferred application.

Comet Docs is one such online conversion service, but there are plenty of others to choose from.

Working online using the tools and services is a great solution when you're on the move or if you're looking to keep software costs to a minimum.

Of course there will be some tools you use that do not have online cousins. This does not mean that you need to find a new way of working as remote access is always an option.

Even this does not mean that you need to have a great deal of traditional software installed on your laptop. If you have Chrome as your web browser you can use a handy extension to remotely tap into your desktop computer at home or in the office -- a decent alternative to the likes of VNC. And Microsoft's SkyDrive has remote access baked in too.

So, could you work solely with cloud based tools? In theory, there is no reason why many day to day tasks could not be performed in this way. Could I do it? To be honest, I'm not sure. I do spend a great deal of time with Google products in general, but whenever I have tried to switch to using Google Docs as my primary office suite, I always find something that makes me switch back to using Microsoft Office.

At a very basic level this could be because of a simple difference between the way online and offline programs work. Integration with cloud storage services is outrageously useful for anyone working on multiple computers, but one issue that I tend to run into time and time again is when switching between tasks.

Having used Windows for approaching two decades, Alt-tabbing between apps is something I do without a second thought. This is slightly different to working in a browser tab. When I'm researching something online and making notes in a Google document, I frequently find that I will try Alt-tabbing from the website I'm reading to try to reach my word processor.

Of course, there's nothing to stop me from pulling out a tab of my browser so I can then switch between two windows, but this has yet to become second nature. Memory muscle can be hard to re-train.

But working in the cloud does not just mean finding online, browser-friendly tools that you can use to replace familiar desktop software, there are advantages to be found in tools that make use of cloud-based, shared information.

System optimization tool Soluto makes great use of shared information to help provide a better experience for all of its users. Much like an antivirus tool uses a definitions database to cross-check finding, so this tool uses information gathered from computers all over the world to help provide the best system security and optimization advice.

Speaking of security, Panda Cloud Antivirus (like a growing number of similar tools) takes its definitions online. Rather than requiring users to download updates, the most recent definitions can always be accessed from Panda's servers.

This takes the onus of being up to date away from the end user, thereby helping to increase overall security levels; in theory at least.

So... what do you think? Is there additional value to be found in tools and services that make use of 'the cloud'? Are there any programs you have dropped in favor of online alternatives? Is the 'cloud' tag nothing more than a faddish label? Could you ditch traditional software entirely? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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