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Summary:

When will we stop talking about the cloud? If history is any guide, eventually the idea of the cloud as something that is separate from the web will disappear as more people get used to it — although when that will happen is anyone’s guess.

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Talking about “the cloud” is a pretty popular thing to do, at least in technology circles. We have a whole stream within GigaOM devoted to cloud-related topics, and everyone from Google to Microsoft — and of course Amazon, which more or less pioneered the cloud — is selling cloud-based platforms. Apple even launched something called iCloud as part of its latest update. But will we always talk this way? If history is any guide, eventually the idea of the cloud as something separate from the web will disappear as more people get used to the concept — although when that day will come is anyone’s guess.

The arrival of the cloud as a mainstream phenomenon is one of the topics we’re going to be talking about at the upcoming Net:Work conference, which GigaOM is presenting at the Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco on Dec. 8. Among others, we’ll be talking to and hearing from people like Box.net founder and CEO Aaron Levie, Tim Young of Socialcast, and senior executives from companies like Jive Software, Rypple and Elance. Many of these companies are leaders when it comes to changing the way that we work, including the use of cloud services.

Do we really need to know there’s a cloud?

Box.net and similar companies such as Dropbox use the cloud for file hosting and syncing, so you never have to remember which computer you left a specific file on, or use cumbersome remote-access apps to get to the document you need. They have become such an integral part of the way many people work (including me) it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. And in many ways the fact that they use “the cloud” is irrelevant — all that users really need to know is that their files are available whenever and wherever they want them.

If I was explaining either service to my parents, for example, I would try not to use the term “cloud” at all. It wouldn’t really make any sense to them without an explanation, and once I started explaining it — how the cloud is a bunch of servers that Amazon or Google maintains in giant buildings that hold billions of individual files — it would actually make things worse. If I just pointed out that any files placed in a specific folder would automatically show up in other folders on different computers, then they would understand everything they need to know.

Of course, this kind of feature would probably seem like magic to my parents — but then, much of modern technology falls into that category for them, I think. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Geeks and technology fans used to like to talk about their computers and what processors they had, and how much RAM, and even what kind of cooling system they had in them — as well as which operating system was better. As computers have become more powerful and ubiquitous, with mobile devices like smartphones and tablets taking over a large share of the market, I seem to hear fewer of those conversations. And because so much of what we do now involves the web and the “cloud,” things like operating systems and processors and specific PC features are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

The cloud is like the atmosphere — all around us

In the same way, I think the whole idea of a “cloud” will eventually cease to be remarkable — just as computing power is gradually disappearing into the environment around us and becoming part of everyday objects like mirrors or jewellery, even as computers become more powerful every day. Already, hundreds of millions of people use cloud services without even realizing it or talking about it as the cloud. Web-based email is the norm now rather than the exception, and services like Facebook have hundreds of millions of users who likely never stop to think about where their content is being hosted.

That’s not to say there aren’t important issues involved in the cloud, including what rights your cloud provider has to simply delete data (as Amazon did last year with the files hosted by WikiLeaks) or what legal liabilities you undertake when you host your files, photos and other data on a U.S.-based server — something that companies based in other jurisdictions need to be aware of. And in many cases, users themselves need to be aware that their files or content can easily disappear, making backups a necessity.

But in the not-too-distant future, we will all be living and working and exchanging files and services via the cloud, to the point where it won’t really even make sense to talk about the cloud as something separate. It will be like the atmosphere: all around us, invisible, and only important when we don’t have access to it. For more on how the cloud and other technologies are changing the way we live and work, join me at GigaOM’s Net:Work conference on Dec. 8.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Satoru Kikuchi and Argonne National Laboratory

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