Dec 18, 2008

Tech - Portable devices give "cloud" new clout

BOSTON (Reuters) - Chances are the mobile phone tucked in your pocket, the lightweight laptop in your backpack, or the navigation system in your car are under a cloud.

That means much of your vital data is not just at your home, at the office or in your wallet, but can easily be accessed by hooking up to the huge memory of the Internet "cloud" with portable devices.

"There's a lot of buzz about this. Everybody wants to be connected to everything everywhere," said Laura DiDio, an analyst with Information Technology Intelligence Corp.

Cloud computing for mobile devices is taking off with the expansion of high-speed wireless networks around the world.

"You're in a car driving someplace. Not only do you want directions, you want weather reports. You want know what are the best hotels around, where are the restaurants," DiDio said.

That kind of information is available in cars -- and most other places -- via mobile phones, "netbook" laptops hooked up to wireless air cards and even high-end navigation systems.

The cloud has been around since the mid-1990s when Web pioneers such as Hotmail, Yahoo Inc and Amazon.com Inc started letting consumers manage communications, appointments and shopping via the Internet.

Expansion came after companies such as Google Inc offered free programs similar to Microsoft's Word and PowerPoint, using an ordinary PC hooked up to the Internet, or a wireless handheld computer, or phone such as Apple Inc's iPhone. Nowadays you can shoot a photo with your mobile phone and email it to a free photo-editing site such as Picnik.com. Rearden Commerce offers a "personal assistant" that manages airline bookings and restaurant reservations via Research in Motion Ltd's BlackBerry device.

NETBOOKS

The Internet cloud, which also stores photos, music and documents that could be lost if a mobile device or PC were damaged, also supports huge social networks such as Facebook and News Corp's MySpace.

"Cloud computing is going to accelerate. It's a no brainer," said Roger Entner, an analyst with Nielsen IAG. "The stronger the wireless networks become and the more ubiquitous they become, the easier it is to put things on the cloud."

PC makers including Dell Inc, Hewlett-Packard Co and Asustek Computer Inc have been successful in promoting "netbooks" -- a class of PCs introduced over the past two years that are essentially stripped down laptops, but smaller and less expensive. They are designed primarily to access the Web.

Nine of Amazon's 10 top-selling laptops are netbooks, which have little storage capacity and generally do not come with DVD drives. In the past, consumers paid a premium for smaller laptops, which often were high-end models.

"Netbooks hit an immediate sweet spot because of the price point," said Enderle Group analyst Rob Enderle.

A NEW TWIST

Back in the mid-1990s, Hotmail, now owned by Microsoft Corp, pioneered the use of a Web-based service.

Today Web-based email is one of the most widely used and easily accessible cloud services.

It works on ordinary laptops and netbooks. But it is rapidly gaining traction on "smart" mobile phones that share many functions with PCs. They include sophisticated devices such as the Blackberry and iPhone, as well as a new generation of handhelds from companies that include HTC Corp, Nokia and Palm Inc.

Analysts expect Internet companies to focus more attention on cloud-based applications for consumers in 2009.

"There's no way to stop it," said Enderle of the Enderle Group. "It's just a case of getting more and more consumer offerings based in the cloud."

(Editing by Andre Grenon)

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