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With new Web services, more companies are working in the ‘cloud’

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Some say it represents the most important change to the Internet since its inception. Others say the term is so wispy and ephemeral that, like a cloud, it’s impossible to grasp. Still others scoff that it’s only a fancy new term (fast wearing out its welcome) being attached to cyberspace trends that have been under way for years.

Whether people think about it or not, most already operate “in the cloud.” The inboxes for e-mail accounts from Google, Yahoo, or MSN are stored online, not on the user’s computer. Many people also post and share information at social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook. They may back up their PCs with online data storage companies or squirrel away photos at sites like Picasa, Shutterfly, or Flickr.

Some individuals also use the free Google Docs service, online programs that function in much the same ways as Microsoft’s popular Word, Excel, and PowerPoint programs, but allow users to access their documents from just about any computer they like.

“If you can walk into any library or Internet cafe and sit down at any computer, not caring what operating system or browser you’re using, and access a service, that service is cloud-based,” says George Reese, an online businessman whose book on cloud computing will be published next spring.

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