To the cloud

Ask any of the dancing hipsters in Apple’s newest ads, and they’ll tell you: tablets are cool. Ask them why and they might explain that tablets are super portable (though anything larger than the 7” Kindle Fire really isn’t), that access to hundreds of thousands of apps means you’ll never run out of ways to keep yourself busy on the toilet or in the car and that surfing the web from the couch without a laptop is totally worth the two- to five-hundred dollar price of admission.

These are all valid reasons, but look at any tablet objectively and what you’ll see is a tiny screen attached to an underpowered piece of hardware likely to be outshone spec-for-spec by even the most meager offerings of their laptop cousins. So what’s the appeal, and how do these tablets manage to frequently outperform their beefy laptop and desktop counterparts? The answer lies in what we have come to call “the cloud.”

If you’re not already familiar with the concept, think of the cloud as, essentially, storage on the internet for your documents, music files, movies, whatever. Were that the end of it, I’d understand if the response amounted to a resounding “so what?” but consider Apple’s consumer cloud service, iCloud, for a moment. Use iTunes to purchase most of your music or movies digitally? Those purchases are now available on any Apple product of your choice wirelessly and without you having to sync a thing. Start a movie on your MacBook Pro and pick up right where you left off on your iPad in the car or the AppleTV in your living room. Get access to any song in your music library without having to store everything on your computer or iPod Touch. Even more interesting, begin editing a document on your desktop or laptop, save that file to the cloud and continue working on it on your tablet from anywhere; the cloud offers access to all your data, all the time, from anywhere.

So what’s the downside to all this free-flowing, ethereal data bliss? Lack of uniformity for one. Unfortunately, there is no universal cloud where all of our collective data may coexist in harmony, waiting patiently for its call to service. Instead, each major manufacturer has developed its own ecosystem optimized for its own devices; iCloud is a perfect example. To get the most from Apple’s service, the buy-in is a slew of Apple products and services. That’s OK if you’re already there; for myself, owning an iPhone and MacBook Pro coupled with my heavy use of iTunes as my main source of digital media, my union with an iPad somewhere down the road (if I can ever reconcile myself to the price-tag) and iCloud are pretty much pre-ordained. Someone with a pile of digital movies and MP3s from Amazon, on the other hand, may feel more at home with the Amazon Cloud Drive.

Dependence on internet connectivity factors into the equation as well. Between wi-fi and satellites, it’s rare enough these days to find yourself without any means of accessing the internet, but in the event that you do, goodbye cloud services. Your data will be waiting for you when you get back, but no access to the internet means no access to data stored in the cloud.

More and more of the tasks and services that would have once tethered us to a desk are becoming accessible from anywhere thanks to cloud computing, and that’s what makes tablets cool. That’s what moves us towards the future.

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