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Savor the irony: Previously, parents would chastise daydreaming children by saying, “Get your head out of the clouds.” But thanks to cloud computing -- the practice of running software programs on remote servers, with results beamed in real time to your PC or mobile device -- that’s exactly where it should be glued going forward. Featured applications don’t just operate like everyday desktop counterparts, sparing users the need for expensive hardware and incessant load times, they also promise to revolutionize the entire software industry with an anticipated $42 billion business by 2012, per market-research firm IDC. Here’s how cloud computing is already reshaping the way we work and play.


Google’s Chrome operating system, due out next year, actually makes standardized web-based applications central. This means that most of your data could soon be accessible anytime, and worries over system compatibility will become a fading memory. Other benefits include superior program stability, no need to sweat available hard-disk space, and a potentially limitless pool of web applications.


Streaming services Gaikai and OnLive promise to let you access even the most expansive 3-D worlds effortlessly via PCs and TVs, sans intense downloads or installations. And so long as you’ve got broadband Internet connection handy, even janky old systems can offer high-end gaming experiences with everything from Crysis to World of Warcraft.

The dilemma facing Microsoft Office? Free online alternatives like Google Docs, Zoho Suite, and ThinkFree offer comparable word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation functionality -- although Microsoft itself is experimenting with the practice with Office Live (www.offi -- through which projects can easily be shared between multiple users for seamless input and collaboration. In short, suddenly your work space can travel anywhere you do.

One of cloud computing’s biggest upsides is that files are stored off-site and saved across multiple servers, preventing the loss of data due to local disk failure or power surge. On the flip side, providers can upgrade or refine programs on demand , patching errors, adding features, and enhancing performance for all users in record time and without requiring you to purchase additional hardware or retrieve piecemeal patches/updates.


What’s the best part about cloud computing? Nearly anyone can enjoy it. All you really need is a web browser (Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, etc.), broadband connection (the faster the better), and low-to-midrange Mac or PC (or a compatible Internet-connected mobile device). Accessing software is effortless, too: Simply surf to the program’s website, sign in, and follow the on-screen prompts. Some web applications (i.e. Gmail) even offer editions that run offline without access to the Internet. Just be warned: With the industry still in its infancy, issues with privacy and security are valid concerns, and rather than one-time purchase fees, some programs operate on a pay-as-you-go or monthly subscription model.