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.

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 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 Photo Apps

Many of today’s smartphones feature photo functions, and some are good enough to warrant leaving your old point-and-shoot at home.

That’s not to say you should expect the same crispness or resolution you’d get from a traditional camera. (For instance, the iPhone 4 camera features just 5 megapixels, while the average point-and-shoot today offers 10 to 14 megapixels.) But smartphones bring something valuable to the table: photo apps. “It’s amazing how handy it is to take a photo, quickly enhance it with an app, and email it or post it -- all with a few clicks,” says San Francisco-based photographer Angela Lang.

The iPhone leads the pack in photo apps, with several hundred available for download. Android and BlackBerry offer fewer apps, but their selection is growing. Here are some of the coolest apps -- you won’t believe all the creative things they let you do with that tiny little camera!

Photo App No. 1: Camera+

Lets you … Transform your camera
Camera+ amps up the iPhone’s camera functions. It lets you take photos from within the app and then apply effects, such as “HDR” to make colors pop, or “So Emo” to give your pics an air of drama. The image stabilizer diminishes blur, and you can even turn your phone’s flash into a continuous light when you’re snapping a photo in a low-light setting. The app also lets you crop, adjust exposure, add borders and instantly share your photos on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter.

Available on: iPhone (for Android, check out Vignette -- it offers tons of filters and effects for Android’s 8.1-megapixel camera)

Photo App No. 2: Picplz
Lets you … Get social

Picplz (pronounced “pic, please”) also offers lots of filters and effects, but it features a stronger social networking aspect. You can upload your edited photos to the picplz site, view others’ photos, vote on the most interesting photos and leave comments. Browse photos by city and you can even see what everybody is snapping in Houston today.
Available on: iPhone and Android

Photo App No. 3: ColorSplash

Lets you … Add a pop of color
ColorSpash does just one thing, but it’s pretty nifty: It converts your photos to black and white and then selectively adds color back in. Imagine a photo of a circus entirely in black and white, but with a bright pop of color on a red balloon … or a black and white image of your child with her eyes crystal clear in color.

Available on: iPhone, iPad and Android

Photo App No. 4: PostalPix

Lets you … Order prints
Here’s the problem: You have a huge library of photos on your smartphone, but Grandma still wants prints. Instead of downloading the photos on your computer, uploading them on a photo-printing site and ordering prints, get the free PostalPix app and order prints right on your phone. The app lets you crop and scale each photo, print a variety of sizes -- and even print a photo onto a mousepad.

Available on: iPhone (coming soon to Android)

Photo App No. 5: FlickStackr

Lets you … Connect with Flickr
Flickr is one of the world’s most popular photo-sharing sites. It has millions of users (pros and amateurs), and approximately 5,000 photos are uploaded every minute. FlickStackr is a third-party companion app that brings much of Flickr’s functionality to your smartphone or tablet, with a notable addition: It lets you take photos within the app and upload them directly to Flickr. You can then interact with other users, share photos with friends, edit, join groups based on interest, organize and tag photos and learn about photography.

Available on: iPhone and iPad (for Android, check out Flickr Companion)