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Silicon Valley--(PR 2.0)
New York--(MediaPost Publications)
Cleveland--(Digital Media Buzz)
San Francisco--(PC World)
You probably can't live without your PC. But do you love it?
PCs can be clunky and difficult to maintain. They're slow to start up and prone to crashing, wiping out precious files and photographs. They are perennially vulnerable to virus attacks and require frequent upgrades. And if you lose your laptop, or worse, it's stolen, you lose not only your machine but everything stored in its circuitry that's not backed up - those files, contacts, e-mail messages, pictures and videos.
But what if a computer were nothing more than an Internet browser - a digital window pane onto the Web? You could forget about all the software that now powers your computer and everything it does. All of those functions would be done through the Web. And none of the information that's now inside your computer would be there anymore. Instead, it would all be on the cloud of connected computers that is the Internet.
This has been the tantalizing but elusive vision of technology luminaries since the Web emerged in the mid-1990s. Google is the latest technology company to try to bridge the gap between vision and reality. Last week, the Internet search and advertising giant said it was working on a new operating system, the software that controls the basic functions of your computer, that will link users to the cloud. But unlike traditional operating systems like Microsoft's Windows, which run all sorts of additional software, Google's Chrome OS will do nothing more than ensure that its Web browser runs well and fast on your machine.
Whether Chrome OS succeeds may not matter. Much of the computer world is inexorably moving toward "cloud computing" in a shift that could greatly simplify the way we access and process digital information.
There would be no more pesky software installations, no more trudging through menu after menu to configure programs, no more backups or upgrades. E-mailing bulky attachments would be a thing of the past, as people could allow others to access their files online, making collaboration easier.
Any device, anywhere - from a desktop PC to a mobile phone - could give users instant access to all their files and programs so long as it had a Web browser. At the same time, new kinds of devices would be possible, from portable computers that are even lighter than today's thinnest PCs, to, say, a Web-connected screen in a hotel room that would give guests full access to their digital lives.
Cloud computing is not new. People have been using Web e-mail services like Hotmail for a dozen years. They interact with Web services like Facebook or Twitter, which live on the Internet, from their PCs at home and work or from their mobile phones. Google and others already offer online versions of word processing and spreadsheet programs.
The idea's full potential, however, has not come close to being realized. But as technological obstacles to running most software inside a Web browser fall, the possibility of a big step forward is real.
In the past few years, phones have started to act more like computers, and devices like the iPhone have whetted consumers' appetite for a combination of power and simplicity. Now that power and simplicity could migrate from the phone to the PC.
"The experience that we have on our iPhones and smart phones prefigures what the PC will become" said Nicholas Carr, the author of "The Big Switch" a book about cloud computing.
That's not to say that the old PC-computing world will disappear soon. Microsoft's Windows still powers 90 percent of the world's personal computers. The company's Office software is used by more than 450 million paying customers. Many corporations have resisted shifting e-mail, accounting or customer tracking software to the Web, for fear of losing control over vital business functions. And some software like 3-D games or graphics editing require so much computing power that they are still not suited to running inside a Web browser.
What's more, without clear policies or regulations governing the privacy and ownership of data in the cloud, some consumers might resist putting the most personal details of their digital lives there.
For millions of consumers, though, the possibility of trading their old PCs for a slick, simple device that uses a Web browser to do just about everything they would want is increasingly close. "We are waiting for someone to put together the right combination of hardware and software" said Paul Saffo, the veteran Silicon Valley technology forecaster.
That's what Google is hoping to do with Chrome OS, which will be available next year.
"Everyone wants to be in the cloud" Mr. Saffo said. "It is visible on the horizon."
by Miguel Helft
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