Amazon's and Apple's recently announced cloud computing services have generated a lot of buzz.
The "cloud" simply refers to the Internet. "Cloud computing" refers to software and services that run over the Internet.
Webmail like Gmail and Hotmail are considered cloud computing. So are online backup services.
You can access cloud computing services and data from virtually any Web connection. Here are Amazon's and Apple's cloud services and the advantages they offer.
Amazon Cloud Drive
Amazon Cloud Drive provides 5 gigabytes of free storage. That holds about 1,000 songs, 2,000 photos or 20 minutes of high-definition video. There is a 2 GB size limit per file. You can upload documents, videos, music, photos and more.
You get unlimited access to your files from up to eight devices. Amazon will upgrade your account to 20 GB for a year at no charge. You just have to buy an MP3 album.
If you need more storage, Amazon offers paid plans. They start at 20 GB and top out at 1,000 GB (1 terabyte). You'll pay $1 per gigabyte per year. Plans renew automatically.
There are different ways to upload and download files. You can store MP3s purchased from Amazon on Cloud Drive automatically. Purchased music won't count against your storage limit. You can upload or download single files via your Web browser. To download multiple MP3s, you'll need the Amazon MP3 downloader. It runs on Windows XP, Vista and 7 and OS X.
Clicking a music file from your account will open the Amazon Cloud Player. You can listen to your music directly from the Web. You can only play MP3 files or AAC (M4A) files that are DRM-free. There's also a Cloud Player app for Android phones and tablets.
iCloud is a free service that replaces MobileMe. It is integrated into apps and iTunes. Some iCloud features appear in iTunes 10.3 beta, but the full roll-out is this fall. iCloud provides 5 GB of free storage. You can also store up to 20,000 songs purchased from iTunes. Other purchased content and photos don't count against your limit.
When you purchase a song from iTunes, you can download it to any of your devices. Past purchases are available, and you can have music downloaded automatically. You can't play music directly from iCloud. You must download it.
You probably have music purchased from another store or ripped from CD. In that case, there's iTunes Match ($25 yearly). It scans your music collection. You can listen to music already in iTunes. If music isn't available, you can upload it from your collection.
iCloud isn't just about music, though. Photo Stream syncs photos taken on your iOS device with other devices. You can view and download photos to other iOS devices, PCs, Macs and Apple TVs. A Photo Stream album containing your last 1,000 photos is created. New photos are stored for 30 days.
iCloud also backs up a variety of other data, like apps, text messages and iWork documents. You get a free email address that works across all your devices. And it stores your calendar and contacts and syncs entries across all your devices. If you choose, you can create a calendar to share with your entire family.
To get all the features of iCloud, you'll need iOS 5 on your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. Mac users need OS X Lion. It is available in July for $30. Windows users need Vista or Windows 7. Outlook 2007 or 2010 is recommended for accessing contacts and calendars.
As users, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. No longer is our data, music, media, photos, and documents tied to a particular computer at a specific location. When all this moves into the cloud, access to your files is literally at your fingertips.