While cloud storage was a vague concept until recently, the cloud is now a mainstay of consumers' modern tech lives. Dropbox syncs documents, photos and any other type of data among computers, tablets and smartphones. Instagram and Vine hold troves of photo and video memories. And Facebook houses an autobiography of every user.
As much as consumers depend on the cloud, however, they can never depend on it 100 percent — as a long line of cloud disappointments, both past and very recent, has proved.
Before Facebook, people poured their life stories into MySpace, as they did with Friendster before that. Each time a social network either closes down or becomes so uncool as to be irrelevant, all that personal outpouring goes to waste.
Recently, entertainment has moved to the cloud in a big way. It's not just a means to access content randomly, such as picking a show to stream from Hulu or HBO Go, but to organize favorites in Spotify playlists, Pandora stations, Netflix queues, and lately, cloud DVR recordings.
But what happens when that cloud service blows away?
TV up in the air
That dilemma faces customers of Internet video company Boxee as it closes shop after being acquired by Samsung earlier this week (likely to help improve Samsung's smart TV software). The six-year-old streaming-video service and set-top box company encouraged people to share what they were watching and listening to and "follow" friends and notables' entertainment tastes. All those connections have now disappeared.
Recently, the militant cord-cutting company remade itself as a TV-friendly service with a device that pulls in both Internet video such as Netflix as well as broadcast TV via an antenna and HDTV tuner.
It also offered a "cloud DVR" where customers could store unlimited hours of recorded shows to watch later. A free version had restrictions on how long recordings would be available and how many hours people could watch per month. A planned $10-per-month without restrictions was never launched. So no one lost any money. Boxee announced that it will close down the service on July 10.
Unless customers go on a viewing binge this weekend, they may never get to see some of the shows they diligently saved. As for the $100 set-top box, the company says it is working on a fix so that most services, such as streaming Netflix, will still work. It also has a 90-day return policy on devices bought from its site.
Boxee isn't unique. Aereo — a new service that tunes in broadcast TV, then pipes it to users over the Internet — also offers a cloud DVR, at $8 per month for 20 hours and $12 for 60 hours. Aereo isn’t a struggling startup like Boxee — it's owned by media empire IAC. But it's also been in a precarious position. It was recently sued by broadcasters including ABC, NBC and CBS, which tried to shut the service down because it was selling to customers what they were broadcasting for free over the airwaves.
Aereo won the suit and is now expanding beyond New York City. But old-media legal challenges don't go away after one ruling. [See also: 5 Steps to Cut Cable and Enjoy TV for Half the Price ]
Even the mighty fall — or are pushed
Don't count on big cloud services to last forever, either. In 2011, Apple introduced iTunes in the Cloud, which allows you to download from the cloud to any device the songs you already purchased from iTunes. And for a $24.99 per-year fee, you can download copies of any songs from the CDs you already own. Amazon offers a similar service called Cloud Player that also allows streaming of music you own.
Those companies haven't announced plans to shut down their music clouds, but they've done so with other services. Apple, which has struggled with this whole online service thing, killed off its buggy MobileMe cloud-syncing service (which cost $100 per year) in July 2012 and shut down its failed Ping social media music network in September 2012.
In 2009, Amazon remotely wiped the e-book versions of "1984" and "Animal Farm" from the library of everyone who'd bought it because of a rights dispute related to the e-book. And in 2012, it deleted a woman's entire Kindle library, without compensation, because it believed her account was somehow associated with an "abuse" that the company didn't clarify.
Google just folded its popular Reader service for tracking RSS feeds, forcing people to scramble to services such as Feedly, which themselves struggled to get together a replacement service in time. But if even mighty Google can kill off a popular service, how safe is data from a small replacement company that few people had heard of a month or two ago?
No going back
It's unlikely that all these disappointments will keep people away from cloud entertainment, though, because it's pretty much essential to consumers' increasingly mobile tech lives. In 2001 — the Paleolithic age of mobile broadband — downloading songs to a computer and syncing them over a cable to an iPod was the only way to make music portable. Now that consumers are staring at 3G and 4G smartphones constantly, being tied to a computer seems silly. For some people, using a computer for anything seems old-fashioned.
Tech-savvy consumers get online and get entertained from all kinds of connected devices — smartphones, tablets, e-readers, PCs, even TVs, and maybe Google Glass. It's impossible to sync them all — literally, since they can never have enough storage for all the personal data and the millions of songs and videos consumers can get from the cloud. [See also: How Google Glass Will Change Porn ]
So consumers are stuck with — and in many ways, blessed with — the cloud. But before too much effort and money is invested in the cloud, consumers have to recognize that, just like the real thing, the Internet clouds can also disperse at any time.
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