One of the most overworked terms in technology lately is "Cloud Computing." The term, that was coined to refer to computer tasks performed on someone else's equipment, has become so overused as to be almost meaningless. But nevertheless the movement of computer services from individual computers and networks to huge online servers is growing inexorably. So why should we care? As genealogists why would we care if Google.com, Microsoft.com and Amazon.com, the three largest suppliers of cloud computing, are out there competing for business?
Let me list a few of the reasons: Ancestry.com, WeRelate.org, New.FamilySearch.org, OneGreatFamily.com, MyHeritage.com, MyTrees.com, WikiTree.com and many, many more websites.
What do all of these sites have in common? They offer an online service, keeping you genealogical data, that was previously only available on your own personal computer. Let me give you an example. Let's suppose I am just starting out in genealogy. Instead of buying a computer program to store my family information, I log onto one of the online services and start entering my family information. In essence and fact, I am using cloud computing. I began to notice this phenomena as I talked to people who had all of their genealogy on New.FamilySearch.org and resisted the idea of having their own computer database program. Some of these online programs offer more features for storing and sharing your genealogical database than those offered by some of the commercial individual programs available. In addition, the cloud storage companies advertise free service, although in most cases they are a lead-in to some sort of paid service.
Of course the hype about Cloud Computing is due to the involvement of huge multinational corporations who are in the process of transferring corporate computing from a localized activity to one available "in the cloud" or online. Large companies are moving many of their traditionally in-house activities like e-mail, order entry, customer management and payroll, to some other company and some other location online.
There are a whole list of technologies that had to develop before Cloud Computing could even be possible. These technologies included very inexpensive and huge storage capacity as well as extremely high speed Internet connections. In addition, the companies had to develop a way of paying for online services. Another requirement was the expansion of the Internet to be almost universally available. If we were missing any one or more of these developments and Cloud Computing would not have been possible.
What part of your genealogy would you be willing to put online? What if you realized that most of the online options include the ability to keep your data private and only available by login and password? What if you also realized that you could access your data from anywhere, even your cell phone, iPod or other device?
I believe the movement towards cloud computing is inevitable and will continue to play a larger and larger part in our online genealogy activities. We can now store our files, photographs and all the rest online and we can also use the online programs to organize our data, but in the future I am sure that most, and probably nearly all software will be Internet based.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It is neither. It is neutral as far as good or bad, it will be a change. Some software developers are already allowing a cut-down version of their program to be downloaded for free, but charging for a 1 year "subscription" to their software to upgrade to a full-blown version of the program.
The down-side? What happens to your data when and if you quit paying the storage or online fees?