Of late, it has become increasingly trendy to describe various information processing services as being in 'The Cloud' which is just a fancy new name for the old concept of keeping your essential personal and business data on a computer controlled by somebody else.
Indeed, Google have recently launched a new operating system, Google Chrome OS, which is designed around this concept and Microsoft are hitting the same market with their Web-based Office 365 product.
Apart from the fact that some of these services require payment of an ongoing subscription rather than outright ownership of software and data storage, what does the so-called Cloud Computing actually mean to the user?
The first problem is that the use of these services requires a reliable internet connection and, without that, there is no access to your important data.
Anybody who has tried posting to a blog or social networking site during busy periods will also appreciate that response can be quite sluggish compared to working with documents located on your own computer..
In reality, web-based computing has been with us for some years and several email systems (Yahoo, Hotmail, GMail) are based around this concept as are various messaging and social networking services.
To illustrate how these services can go wrong, I provide two examples of Hotmail issues, arising this week, from my Facebook contacts.
In the first case, my contact found that he could no longer receive email attachments at work via his Hotmail account.
Hotmail have apparently changed their system so that attachments are now stored on Microsoft's Skydrive service and accessed via a link added to the email.
That's not a bad idea in itself (I use a similar service called Winzip Courier) but this particular recipent's company network server blocks access to these external links, making the attachments inaccessible.
My second contact had a more-serious problem in that she found her Hotmail account 'blocked' and has consequently lost around 15 years of work, contacts, links, business plans and personal information.
It's not clear why the account is blocked though 'hacking' is suspected.
After a few days of argee-bargee with Hotmail (or Windows Live or whatever they call themselves this week) have communicated thus:
'We have concluded our review of the information you provided. Our agents were unable to validate that you are the account owner. The information provided has been reviewed and our agents could not match this information to the account information currently stored for the account.
Our final recommendation is to create a new Windows Live ID account.
Notwithstanding the talk of 'agents', these service-provider help systems are increasingly automated and it is pretty-well impossible to communicate directly with a real person.
To me, It seems inconceivable that anybody would want to open a new account having just lost 15 years-worth of important information.
Don't even get me started on Apple's Mobile-Me which is supposed to synchronise email, contacts, calender, etc, between PCs and mobile devices but has ended-up losing several years of history for one of my clients–it's so good that Apple are presently re-launching the service as ICloud (let's hope that it doesn't become known as ICrap).
It's easy to become mesmerised with the latest 'whizzy' technology even though much of it is old technology with new branding.
In my opinion, important business and personal information is best kept under direct user control with a robust system of backup–'Cloud' computing reduces that control which increases the risk of data loss and exposure.
It's also a good idea to use your own domain name for email–these can be hosted with any domain hosting provider and can be moved to another if any aspect of the service becomes unacceptable.
With Hotmail, Google, and Yahoo, as well as email provided by Internet Service Providers, you can only use their email addresses while you subscribe to those services and you can't really demand reinstatement of those you haven't paid for.