< h3 class=byline>By KELLI B. GRANT
Along with CD binders, bookshelves, and DVD collections, please add to the list of defunct media storage devices: Your hard drive. As more media companies allow people to use the web to store videos, music, photos and the rest of their digital lives, consumers could find themselves with more gigabytes than they know what to do with—and a significant savings on everything from MP3 players to pricey warranties.
The innovation is called "cloud computing" and, simply put, it is the technology behind web-based services that store your digital files—from videos and songs to books and personal photos--remotely and offer you access from multiple devices through a browser or downloadable app. And the innovations in "cloud computing" have captivated the crowds at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with visions of music files available anywhere, anytime, movie-sharing among friends, and never again losing hundreds of downloaded television shows along with a lost laptop.
For consumers, the advances could also save money. Those who use on-demand or streaming media services like TiVo, Amazon On Demand and iTunes could soon be able to buy a movie, a song or an album and store it in the cloud, instead of on a hard drive. Saving data in the cloud is already cheap, in small batches. Gmail, for example offers users more than 7.5GB free (that's more than 355,000 emails); an extra 20GB per year costs . And, once stored there, you could access that video or song from multiple Internet-connected devices, which eliminates the need to buy multiple copies to cover several devices (say, the actual disc for a Blu-ray player and a digital copy to transfer to your MP3 player or phone), and could allow you to cross other items off of your shopping list (connecting to content directly from your TV via cloud, for example, instead of buying a new Blu-ray player).
Such remote storage also makes it less devastating to have a device stolen, lost or damaged--your media won't be lost along with your stolen laptop or fried iPod. The advantage of backing up to the cloud, rather than to an external hard drive, for example, is that you can access your data immediately, say, from a loaner laptop. And thefts are all too common. According to the FBI's National Crime Information Center, laptop computers are the most-stolen device. In 2008, the latest available statistics, more than 109,000 were stolen. And a study conducted the same year by the Urban Institute, a think tank, said that incidents of stolen iPods were so high that they actually skewed crime statistics.
People storing data in the cloud might also save money on their actual gadgets, because they may be able to get by with a smaller hard drive and a less powerful processor, says Kurt Scherf, a principal analyst with Parks Associates. Bottom line: No more worrying about how much space the latest episode of Modern Family will take up on your MP3 player -- it won't actually live there. Combined, those factors could lead consumers to choose less expensive gadgets (say, a 1GB netbook at about instead of a 4GB laptop for ) and reduce the need for extras like extended warranties, which can cost up to for three years on that laptop.
There are downsides. Remote storage in the cloud also raises privacy and security concerns, because consumers don't control the measures that protect their data, says Amber Yoo, a spokeswoman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer advocacy group. Read the fine print to find out who can access your content, and what will happen to it if the company storing it goes under, she advises. If you use such a service, consider retaining any sensitive material on a computer or other hard drive at home, where you can provide virtual padlocks including a firewall and password protection.
As cloud computing becomes more mainstream, those security measures will grow more important, too. Analysts have repeatedly speculated that Apple and Google could both soon announce cloud-based music storage services. Other cloud services will be ready for consumers by this spring. Wireless provider Cricket just rolled out a plan that includes music downloads stored on the cloud. Vizio is putting video game system OnLive's content on its web-connected TVs, computers and phones -- letting gamers play from anywhere. And backup service SugarSync is talking up its 5GB free cloud storage, which includes music storage with unlimited streaming of your collection to a phone or browser without downloading.
Of course, the transition to the cloud won't be free of turbulence. Content providers' limits on capacity and bandwidth could hamper the experience initially, says Gartner analyst David Smith. (This is where you'll regret giving up that unlimited data plan on your phone.) And a slow Internet connection may also make the experience less than ideal, says Scherf, although most cloud services automatically adjust for the connection's speed so that the quality stays consistent.