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Cloud computing goes mainstream

This consumer shift toward cloud computing is a subtle change with big implications.

James Martin/CNET

This year, the shift away from desktop software toward cloud-based apps and services really took hold. More people are managing and sharing documents with Google Docs and Microsoft's Office 365, they're storing photos and music in iCloud and Amazon Cloud Drive, and they're turning to online music services such as Spotify and Pandora. E-mail is quickly becoming a cloud-only affair: Microsoft launched cloud-based Outlook.com even as venerable desktop e-mail apps like Mozilla's Thunderbird and Sparrow disappeared forever in 2012. And why buy boxed tax-prep software when the same capabilities are available in-browser from the same vendors?

It's another reason why a PC's operating system is becoming less of a consumer litmus test -- it's pretty easy to toggle between Mac and Windows when all you really need is Google Docs, Gmail, Evernote, Amazon Cloud Player, and Mint. If you really want to take it to the extreme, Google's Chromebook line of laptops goes all the way, replacing the entire OS with just the browser -- and with prices starting as low as $199, they make a compelling case to give up shrink-wrapped software for good.

This shift toward cloud computing is a clear cost and convenience win for consumers, who can now access all their digital "stuff" anytime and from almost any device. Of course, plenty of caveats keep many from making the jump -- the need for persistent, ubiquitous broadband access; the fact that it requires providers to maintain 100 percent uptime; and the threat of ongoing privacy concerns. But it's clearly the trend, and one that will have big implications for just about every major tech company. Case in point: How much time and money should Microsoft allocate to Windows development if this trend continues?

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