Your Personal Cloud Demystified: The Glue that Simplifies Life Online

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As our need to be mobile increases, our gadget portfolios grow from a single PC to multiple devices—our data is scattered across all of them. The cloud brings it all together.

 

Chances are pretty good that if you’re reading this post, you have already used the cloud. Got Gmail? On Facebook, Pinterest? Use online banking? There you have it. You’re computing in the cloud!

Simply put, cloud computing is just a metaphor for how we use the Internet to access our digital information—photographs, music, movies, games, recipes, banking…you name it. When a file is stored in the cloud, it just means the file resides on one of millions of servers across the globe, accessed through an Internet connection. The cloud is the glue that connects the information generated from our PCs, smartphones, tablets and other devices to our digital life, keeping our stuff right at our fingertips.

My family uses the cloud in a gazillion different ways. From making video calls to grandma in Pennsylvania  or shopping from our tablet to tracking our financial accounts on our smartphones—I can also be connected to my car’s dashboard thanks to the cloud. Even the documents I create on my PC are uploaded to the cloud to access on my smartphone or share with my colleagues at the office so that I can be more productive at work—which gets me home to my family faster.

The cloud has significantly changed the quality of our lives and improves how we connect to each other and our stuff. But if you’re concerned about privacy and security—you should be. And so are the providers that bring these ground breaking services to you. In most cases, cloud service providers take privacy and security very seriously, using the toughest security encryption techniques available—this isn’t just lip service. That said, nothing is foolproof. Anytime you access the Internet…err, cloud, be sure you understand all the privacy policies and don’t lose sight of the strength of your passwords.

If you’re just beginning to dabble with cloud applications, start with setting up a file sharing account and link your family calendars…you’ll be amazed how quickly these two steps will simplify your life.

Here’s just a sampling of how we use the cloud in our family:

 

Amazon Cloud Drive: We store our music, movies and documents in Amazon’s online storage (a.k.a. the cloud), and access our stuff from any device, anywhere. Right now, you can get unlimited space for your music in Cloud Drive, plus 20 GB of storage for your other files, for just $20 each year. And your Amazon MP3 purchases won’t count against your quota.

 

Evernote: Evernote is a lifesaver for memory-challenged moms, like me. A combination of local software and cloud service, a “note” can be a piece of formatted text, a full webpage or webpage excerpt, a photograph, a voice memo, or a handwritten note and even file attachments. Users can sort notes into folders, then tag, annotate, edit, add comments, search and export as part of a notebook. With internet access, your Evernote can automatically synchronize with a master copy held on the Evernote server, allowing you full access across multiple devices to view, input and edit your notes, even when an Internet connection isn’t available. Cool huh?

Mint.com: I secretly love personal finance—though my love for it doesn’t help me make the right decisions. Mint.com is a brilliant cloud-based application that helps track all our household financials—banking, credit cards, investments and the like. Mint brings all our financial accounts together online or on our mobile devices, automatically categorizes our transactions, lets us set budgets and encourages us to achieve our savings goals. It allows us financially challenged parents to streamline budget and goal setting, and it offers suggestions on how to save more and suggests better plans.

 

Microsoft Office Web Apps: I’m addicted to Microsoft Office, and now I can be even more productive with the online version of the Office suite. Now, I can access, edit and share my Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote documents online from anywhere, from any connected device with a web browser in conjunction with SkyDrive (see below). I can’t live without it. I use it to write my blog posts, access my husband’s calendar (he gave me access, promise!) and build presentations for work. But my absolute favorite is the templates that Microsoft provides, many donated from other creative users, like this Meal Planner (awesome!).

SkyDrive: Part of the Windows Live Essentials package, SkyDrive is a cloud storage solution that allows you to store documents, images, video, music, etc. that you can access through a web browser from any connected device. As I mentioned above, I use it with Office Web Apps, but I also use it to share photos and post information I want to share with others on Facebook using my nifty Windows Phone SkyDrive app. Of all the cloud storage services, SkyDrive offers the most free storage, up to 25GB. Wow.

Skype: Maki ng video calls isn’t just for the Jetson’s; it’s for everybody now. One way to do it is by using Skype, a cloud-based service that allows you to communicate with friends and family by voice, video, and instant messaging over the Internet, in some cases for free. Though most people know Skype for its video calling, it also enables voice phone calls to be placed over traditional telephone networks. Calls to other users within the Skype service are free, while calls to landline telephones and mobile phones require a small fee, as in itty bitty, barely a fee. I love the videoconferencing feature for face-to-face calls on my laptop with people in multiple locations—like Gaga in Pennsylvania and auntie Tash in Phoenix—regardless of my location.

 

Xbox Live/Kinect: Xbox. It’s not just for gaming anymore. Xbox LIVE is the online service for the Xbox 360 console and built right into my Windows Phone. For our family, it’s the entertainment hub for our family room. We use it to find and watch the latest HD movies, our favorite television shows, and concerts—my husband loves that he can watch the latest UFC fights. With Kinect, we play games with online friends and family wherever they are and even have movie parties with my sister and her kids—they are in Kansas, and we are in Seattle. We keep in touch with friends and family by updating our status on Facebook, share photos and videos of our family adventures, and chat face-to-face with grandparents on the biggest screen in our house—the television. We use this versatile cloud service in more ways than any other application or device that we own—and we own m-a-n-y connected devices.

UPDATE: I nearly forgot to mention one of my very favorite cloud apps: Ancestry.com, which I use to trace my family tree. I’m a history buff, and I’m fascinated by my family roots—largely driven by the stories told to me by my Granny Emma who passed away years ago. She told me stories about her parents’ difficult lives in the early days of Kansas settlements. When I discovered Ancestry.com, it not only helped me track her family origins, but it also helped me validate the challenges of her parents’ lives and other Kansas settlers—incredibly difficult. With more than nine billion digital historical records ranging from federal census information, birth certificates and marriage licenses to war registration cards, it also connects users to other researchers and the work they have done. Other researchers on Ancestry.com pointed me to digital records and archives that proved my great, great grandfather was a founding father of the Kansas town I grew up in, and his huge role to protect Kansas interests during the Civil War. Fascinating!

How do you use the cloud? What are your favorite cloud apps and services? Leave your tips in the comments.

woman in clouds
Women in Clouds by crayonmonkey via Flickr

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