What Is Cloud Computing?

These days, you’re probably seeing a lot of new TV commercials for gadgets and Internet services that mention “the cloud” -- or “cloud computing.” It may sound like the next big thing, but cloud computing has actually been around for a few years. Some popular examples of cloud services you may already be using are Gmail, YouTube or Google Docs.

So, what is cloud computing?

The Cloud Demystified
When people talk about the cloud, they’re still talking about the Internet. In the past, you went online to visit websites and use email, but most of your data and applications still lived locally on your computer. But now, you can store all your files on the Internet in the “cloud” and work directly on them at any time via your Web-connected devices (e.g., smartphone, laptop or desktop computer). Your PC or device is simply what’s connecting you to the cloud.

“The cloud is really about having the freedom to access and store information and get work done when you need it, wherever you are,” says Marcia Kaufman of analyst firm Hurwitz & Associates and co-author of Cloud Computing for Dummies. “No one is tied to their office or laptop computer anymore.”

Life Before and After the Cloud
You may not even realize how much the cloud helps you with your daily tasks. Consider these cloud benefits, along with what life online was like before:

Cloud Benefit No. 1: Store Your Files Online

  • Before the cloud: To store your files, you had to save them on the hard drive of your personal laptop or computer. And if you wanted to take your files with you, you’d save them on a thumb drive or CD.
  • With the cloud: Create a document within a cloud service like Google Docs, and you’ve securely stored it online. As a result, you don’t have to carry your laptop everywhere. You can access files -- and not just documents, but photos, videos and audio too -- from virtually any Web-connected computer or device. You can even use sites such as Deezer.com or Maestro.fm to store your music library in the cloud and listen to it anywhere you go.

Cloud Benefit No. 2: Get Your Apps Online

  • Before the cloud: You depended on costly software installations on your personal computer to get the benefit of various applications.
  • With the cloud: Many helpful applications now run in the cloud. Are you into video editing? Instead of purchasing costly movie-making software for pros on your computer, use YouTube Video Editor online. Or, want to jot down thoughts or links as you browse? Just log onto Evernote, a cloud-based note-taking application. The app will save your notes in the cloud for the next time you log on. You can even avoid paying for productivity software like Microsoft Office by using Google Docs or Zoho.

Cloud Benefit No. 3: Back up for Less

  • Before the cloud: To back up your files, you had to buy expensive hardware.
  • With the cloud: Rather than buying an expensive hard drive to back up your computer, try an inexpensive online backup service such as Mozy. Some cloud services you come to rely on may charge a monthly or annual subscription fee. So read the fine print to make sure you’re not signing up for a free trial that will eventually run out. Even so, if you love the service, the benefits may be worth avoiding costly software upgrades or the pitfalls of using an outdated desktop package.

Cloud Benefit No. 4: Save and Share Your Photos Easily

  • Before the cloud: You saved your photos on your personal computer. If you wanted to share them with a friend, you emailed them. And if your hard drive or external drive crashed, you lost all your photos forever.
  • With the cloud: Organize and back up your photos on multiple sites on the Web. You can control who sees your photos, and even if something happens to your hardware, your photos are still safe in the cloud. “I love sharing with Picasa Web albums,” says Milica Knezevic, a mother of two from Chicago. “You can share with family and friends who can choose to order prints from a variety of providers, set stricter privacy settings, comment on photos and upload original photos.”

Cloud Benefit 5: Get the Latest Updates Fast

  • Before the cloud: You had to wait for hours on the phone with tech support when one of your computer’s desktop applications wasn’t working.
  • With the cloud: Cloud apps are typically maintained and updated automatically by their provider, so you are less likely to encounter technical problems. And if you do, the cloud service provider is probably already working on ironing out the kinks.

The last thing you may be wondering is, Are cloud-based services safe? In general, yes. But before you trust your data to any cloud provider, be sure to read the terms of service and understand your privacy settings -- especially if you’ll be sharing content. The cloud can also deliver security services -- SaaS, aka “software as a service” -- that make it easier to keep your spyware, antivirus and other security features updated while you’re on the go for all your devices.

4 Life-changing Resolutions You Can Stick To

Time flies. It’s 2011 already, yet it seems like just yesterday you were recovering from last year’s New Year’s Eve party. And before you know it, 1/1/11 will turn into 11/11/11 -- another year gone by. That’s when you may find yourself staring at the calendar and wondering what happened to all those resolutions of new years past.

Keeping resolutions is not just about willpower. It’s about having a system in place to reach your goals. The cloud can help, letting you store and access relevant software, tools and files via any of your Web-connected devices. Here’s how to use the cloud to keep some common new year’s resolutions:

Resolution No. 1: Get more organized.

  • Use online calendars and productivity tools to write your goals, set milestones and track and share your progress. Our three favorite tools: Google Docs, Cohuman and DreamTeam
  • Use apps to get real-time feeds from social media and RSS sources to stay on top of what’s important to you.
  • Clear out old, unwanted files and organize current files or projects in folders. Store files you want to save in the cloud for free, using such a service as Google Docs, Box.net, Windows Live Mesh or Amazon S3.
  • Protect your files. Secure access to digital storage is one of the top benefits of cloud computing: It lightens your computer’s load and improves its speed so you can get tasks done faster.

Resolution No. 2: Save more money and manage debt.

  • Clear your cookies. Better yet, before you make your next online purchase, upgrade your security software situation to a cloud-managed service that protects you from spyware, adware and malware to help maintain your privacy and protect your credit rating.
  • Take advantage of fraud and identity-theft protection features that are customizable through the cloud.
  • Use cloud tools, such as Mint.com, to create a budget and savings plan that helps you streamline your cash flow. Set calendar alerts to remind you of key payment deadlines.
  • Take pictures of items you want to sell with your smartphone and use Google’s Visual Search application to find out how much your items are worth.

Resolution No. 3: Spend more time with family.

  • Work from home one day a week. Use the cloud to access all the files you need. Easily share documents and collaborate with your team on projects via the Web. With secure access to servers and company files hosted in the cloud, more companies are allowing employees to cloud-commute.
  • Start your own home-based business. Cloud computing minimizes the headaches and costs associated with technical infrastructure, networks, software and security. Much of what you require is available on demand -- meaning you just pay for what you use, without a big up-front investment.
  • Use project management applications, free collaboration tools, document creation, video and sound editing, like Aviary, and free digital file storage.

Resolution No. 4: Volunteer more.

  • Use an online service like VolunteerMatch to locate your ideal project.
  • Use social media to share your experiences and spread the word.
  • Start your own community service project and manage it with cloud-based project management tools.
  • Start a Google Group to keep friends and volunteers organized and informed.
  • Check out Cloud for Good, a nonprofit and education-focused consulting group, to learn how to take your idea to the next level.

Share Safely on Social Networks

The days when social networks were just for teens are long over: Adults now take up social networking for fun and business alike. One entrepreneur, Sheilah Etheridge of Anchorage, Alaska, uses social networks to turn up business leads for her home-based accounting and consulting firm. But Etheridge is selective with what she shares and where. “Everything we post on the Web is obviously out there for all the world to see, and it’s out there for eternity,” she says.

To get the most out of your favorite social networks, it’s important to be aware of how to protect your online privacy. Here’s how to share safely:

Tip No. 1: Don’t fork over too much personal info.
You don’t always know who is viewing even tidbits of your profiles, so think twice before you post sensitive -- or potentially embarrassing -- information, videos or photos on social networks. It could fall into the hands of identity thieves, prospective employers, college recruiters or even potential mates.

“People should assume the content they put online is going to be public,” says blogger blogger Jeremiah Owyang, a former senior analyst for Forrester Research.

Tip No. 1: Review privacy policies before you post.
Some networks, such as LinkedIn, have adopted privacy policies that vouch they’ll never share your information with other users without your consent. Other sites, like Facebook and Twitter, offer online privacy settings that allow you to control who can view certain information and who gets notification when you add friends or Web applications.

But be mindful about the details: On Facebook, for example, your profile and photo privacy settings are separate. Just because you block non-friends from seeing your profile doesn’t bar them from seeing your photos. Make sure your review all your preferences under Account > Privacy Settings.

Tip No. 2: Don’t reveal every step you take.
It’s a freaky thought, but stalkers, jealous spouses and suspicious employers can use social networks to keep an eye on your every move. Many photos and posts are time-stamped, so the date and time you post it is recorded and shared with your network of friends or connections. This means your boss may be able to find out how much time you spend on Facebook while at work.

Facebook also allows you to “Check In” where you are, revealing your geographic location. On Twitter, you can note your location in your tweets and in your profile. If you want to keep your moves and location on the down-low, avoid checking in altogether and tweak your online privacy settings.

Tip No. 4: Be smart with apps.
Most social networking sites are for-profit companies, and advertising keeps membership free. Any time you sign up for a free app or contest on a social network, your private data might be used to target you with online advertising based on your activities.

“The purpose behind social networking sites is supposed to be to enable you to connect with friends and colleagues and do these networking activities,” says John Verdi, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a nonprofit privacy advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “What they don’t say is that ‘our real purpose is to mine your data and sell it to the highest bidder.’”

So even if you’ve read Facebook’s online privacy policy, you still need to read the privacy policies of application-makers who promote their apps on Facebook. “They are third-party applications,” says Verdi. “The social networks don’t vouch for any of them.”

Tip No. 5: Don’t expect to be able to delete it once you post it.
It’s happened to the best of us: being haunted by your old social network posts that never die. There is an assumption that you “own” your profiles. But that’s not the case.

In the past, Facebook users were not able to completely delete their profiles. Facebook claimed it wanted to store the information in case users wanted to revive their profile, but it has now caved in under pressure from users to allow for easier deleting. MySpace and LinkedIn allow users to delete their profiles too.

But when it comes to posts you leave on others’ profiles -- or content that friends copied off your profile or blog -- it can remain online for eternity. “There are going to be remnants or ghosts,” says Owyang. “Assume that everything you put online is forever.”

The single best thing you can do before you put yourself out there on a social network? “Speak to other users you know and trust before joining some sites,” says Etheridge. In other words, network a bit before you sign up for a network so you can learn more about how the site protects your info -- or doesn’t.

The App Guide: Best Mobile Games for Less Than $1

Here’s the truth about mobile games: You can only play Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja for so long before they get a bit stale. But whether you’re a longtime gamer looking for the latest game to get hooked on or just need to occupy your kids on the go, these top five new game apps will do the trick.

Mobile Game No. 1: Zombieville USA 2

Best for … Giving zombies their due

This mobile game is another installment to pop culture’s obsession with the undead. It improves on the original with some new features: character customization, unlockable content, multiplayer capability and iCloud support so you can sync your game play across devices. Although it’s a first-person shooter, the cartoony graphics keep the gore from being realistic in any way; so while it’s on the violent side for young kids, older kids and adults will find there’s something undeniably satisfying about blowtorching a hoard of zombies.

$0.99 on iPhone and iPad; Android users can download the original for $1.99

Mobile Game No. 2: Where’s My Water?

Best for … Clever use of physics

Swampy is that infamous urban legend come to life: an alligator that lives beneath the city. He’s rather fussy about personal hygiene, so you have to dig tunnels and use the power of gravity and water pressure to deliver water to Swampy’s bathtub so he can freshen up. Just watch out for the algae and toxic sludge.

$0.99 on iPhone, iPad and Android

Mobile Game No. 3: Cut the Rope: Experiments

Best for …
The charming green monster
In this sequel to bestseller Cut the Rope, your goal is to solve clever puzzles that will result in feeding candy to Om Nom, the game’s adorable little monster. The concepts are simply designed, but you have to use your brain and master technique -- so Angry Birds devotees will probably find it appealing. This version is similar to the original game; it simply introduces 75 new gaming levels.

$0.99 on iPhone; Android users can try the original Cut the Rope for $0.99

Mobile Game No. 4: Tiny Wings

Best for … Simplicity

In Tiny Wings, you have to help a fat little bird with too-small wings to use hills and become airborne. The app owes much of its charm to its simple and whimsical art. There’s also something sweet about the objective, which is simple to understand but harder to master. And since Tiny Wings is different from most games, it can leave you frustrated when you can’t seem to win, but it will also leave you feeling just a little calmer.

$0.99 on iPhone and Android

Mobile Game 5: Infinity Blade II

Best for …
Amazing graphics
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Tiny Wings is Infinity Blade II. It doesn’t come out until Dec. 1, 2011, so price hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s worth including in this list. It’s one of the most eagerly awaited mobile games in a while. (Apple demoed the game at the announcement of the iPhone 4S, and the buzz has grown ever since.) The game’s storyline is pretty standard fantasy stuff -- the hero’s journey set in an imaginary world with scary imaginary creatures -- but the graphics set it apart. The game is so realistic with its violent sword fighting that it’s not appropriate for kids. But if critics and hardcore gamers are right, Infinity Blade II will be a must-buy for mature gamers who love action games.

Read more about mobile games and mobile game development here.

Pricing TBD; will be available on iOS only

4 Ways to Protect Your Kids Online

Just this summer, mobile apps developer Broken Thumbs Apps was found guilty of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The company had illegally collected -- without prior parental consent -- and disclosed personal information of tens of thousands of children age 13 and younger.

This isn’t an isolated case. With 93 percent of youth online, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, parents are right to be concerned about their kids’ online privacy. If you’re one of them, here’s what you can do:

1. Get educated and start monitoring.
The facts:
Ten percent of online users are children (2 to 11 years), according to Nielsen. But only 32 percent of parents monitor their kids’ online activities, says a SocialShield and comScore study.
What to do: Stay clued in to the latest Facebook privacy setting options to limit your kids’ risk of being tracked down by a perpetrator. (It takes just a few data points, like a name, school or parent’s job to physically locate someone.) Check with your state about its online and privacy programs that help teach adults and kids. Or go to Common Sense Media, which offers online privacy and safety tip sheets (for parents of elementary school, middle school and high school students), along with primers on social networking, gaming and family media management.

Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission has a comprehensive guide to online life, Living Life Online.” It covers privacy issues, sexting and how to share online.

On the mobile front, services like Code9 Mobile allow parents to monitor their kids’ mobile activity by setting curfews for the phone to disable (letting only preapproved callers get through) and by accessing an online report of their kids’ mobile usage, including red flags for privacy violations, like one-sided messages and unknown contacts.

2. School your kids.
The facts: In the past year, 5 million U.S. households have been exposed to some type of abuse thanks to Facebook use, from identity theft to bullying.
What to do: Just because your child needs to be 13 to open a Facebook account doesn’t mean their online privacy education can’t start any earlier. Educate your kids with games like the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s “Stop That Post” and “Tad’s Profile Panic.” Aimed at tweens 8 to 12 years old, these games teach kids what information to keep private. Also check out additional games, tools and resources for teens, children, parents and educators.

3. Help manage your kids’ privacy settings.
The facts:
An estimated 7.5 million children younger than 13 have illegally opened Facebook accounts, many of which are unsupervised.
What to do:
Help your kids set up their Facebook account. About 1 in 5 adult Facebook users say they don’t utilize the network’s privacy controls, according to Consumer Reports. But staying up-to-date with the latest privacy changes is key, as it can prevent your kid from falling prey to identity theft, sex offenders or plain bad judgment when it comes to oversharing.

To start, make sure you and your teen don’t post full birthdays; omit the years you were born to help prevent identity theft. Have your teen “friend” you so you can see what she is posting, and opt out of Instant Personalization, which allows sites to link to your account and share its info with all your friends. To keep up on the latest best practices for managing Facebook privacy settings, search “Manage Facebook settings” and “Privacy.”

4. Reach out to lawmakers.
The facts: An investigation conducted by The Wall Street Journal found that the top 50 children’s websites install 30 percent more tracking technologies than do the top 50 sites for adults.
What to do: Congressmen Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Joe Barton of Texas are working to pass the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011, which would update COPPA to include technologies, like mobile apps, that didn’t exist when the 1998 bill was signed into law. It would also establish new protection in the collection, use, disclosure and storage of kids’ personal information. For example, it includes creating an “Eraser Button” for parents and children, which would require companies to permit users to eliminate publicly available personal information when “technologically feasible.”

Learn more about the bill at DoNotTrackKids.org . And if you support it, write to your local policymakers and tell them how you’d like your child’s privacy protected online.

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