Cloud computing has been with us for a while, and chances are you’re already using one or more cloud services. Web-based email services are a rudimentary example. There was a time when you needed a computer and a special software application to access email, but — for decades now — we have had Gmail, Yahoo Mail and other email services that you can access from any internet-enabled device from any web browser.
A more sophisticated, but still commonplace, example of cloud computing is Google Drive, which gives you free access to some basic but excellent applications such as Google Docs for word processing, Google Sheets for spreadsheets and Google Slides for presentations. Google Drive also offers storage so everything you need — your software and your data — is accessible from any web browser. Google offers a more sophisticated version of these apps for businesses, branded as Google Workspace.
Microsoft, which was a pioneer in desktop applications for early PCs, also offers cloud-based applications and storage. There are web version of Microsoft Office applications including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and more. Microsoft also offers cloud-based storage for the files you create online or even for files you create on your PC.
One advantage of these apps is that you can access them from any internet-connected device, even if you’re away from your home or office. Another advantage, especially for Google cloud apps, is that teams of people can access the same documents at the same time or different times. I share Google documents and spreadsheets with my family so that we can have access to the same information updated by any family member, and my colleagues at ConnectSafely and I use it all the time to collaborate on guides, financial documents, and slides for our presentations.
Windows in the cloud
And now Microsoft is taking cloud computing to a new level with its upcoming Windows 365, which won’t just give you access to apps and data but an entire virtual PC that you can access from anywhere on virtually any internet connected device, including smartphones.
Windows 365, which is expected to launch on August 2, will allow you to access Windows 10 (and later Windows 11) on any device. Microsoft says you will also have the ability to “Stream your apps, data, content, settings, and storage.” That means that the same experience, settings, applications and data you get on your office PC will be available on your home PC, on a friend’s PC or on a tablet or mobile device, and you can pick up where you left off if you move from one device to another.
For businesses and other large organizations, it means not having to purchase, deliver and configure PCs to employees, as long as they already have a device they can use to access the web. And it also means not having to buy the latest machine to run the latest software. As I wrote in an earlier column, Microsoft will soon offer a new version of Windows called Windows 11, which for most current PC users, will require a new machine because of its more sophisticated hardware requirements. But if you’re running Windows 11 in the cloud, you won’t need a Windows 11 compatible PC, because all of the hardware needed to run the operating system will also be “in the cloud.” You can use an old PC, or presumably an old tablet, phone or Mac.
Microsoft has not announced pricing for its cloud version of Windows but my assumption is that it will be priced and aimed mostly for business customers. ZDNet reports that there will be “multiple price points and plans available for purchase, which will offer different amounts of processing power, storage and memory.”
Microsoft’s 365 Office suite will continue to be available for a separate subscription fee. It currently costs $69.99 for a one-user personal subscription with 1 terabyte of storage or $99.99 a year for a “family” plan with up to 6 users (or devices) and up to 6 TB of storage. I usually use the PC version of Office but have occasionally accessed it online instead, especially if I don’t have my own laptop with me.
Although Microsoft has reportedly been working on a cloud version of Windows for years. the pandemic has increased potential demand for this type of service. “Hybrid work has fundamentally changed the role of technology in organizations today,” said Jared Spataro, corporate vice president, Microsoft 365. “With workforces more disparate than ever before, organizations need a new way to deliver a great productivity experience with increased versatility, simplicity and security.”
One of the things I like about cloud computing and the promise of Windows 365 (I haven’t been able to try it yet), is that it reduces the reliance on hardware. From both an economic and environmental standpoint, it’s great to not have to keep buying new equipment. And, because the operating system is running in the cloud, Microsoft — not the user — is responsible for maintenance, security and keeping everything up to date. Today’s PCs require frequent updates (Microsoft issues a security update almost every Tuesday) and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced at least some problems with their PC at some point, which may have resulted in a loss of data or not being able to access their equipment.
While there will continue to be security challenges with cloud computing, it is in many ways more secure than desktop systems that are vulnerable to user error. You will still need to protect your password or other authentication methods, and there will be the risk of hacking, but there will be less risk of malware, which is a frequent source of security problems.
To borrow a phrase from Joni Mitchell, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,” and, on balance, I like what I see.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely, a non-profit internet safety organizations which receives support from Microsoft, Google and other tech companies.