Google's often-stated mission is 'to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful', and what better way to do this than by putting everything online?
But nowadays Google isn't just about information – it's also about applications that can store, display and manipulate that information in useful ways.
Google has been moving everyone onto its cloud web servers for years. If you use Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Picasa or YouTube, you are already putting your data onto its cloud servers. With only a login between you and your content on any internet-connected device, Google can truly lay claim to not only seeing the future of computing as web-based, but actually making it happen.
Google makes no bones about this. When PC Plus asked Robert Whiteside, head of Google Enterprise UK, Ireland and Benelux, how important cloud computing is for Google, he told us: "Google is taking a '100 per cent web' approach to all our services and solutions, meaning we believe applications will be browser based and hosted in the cloud, rather than in a desktop environment."
Google's cloud computing is already a success. As Robert is keen to point out, "Over four million organisations use Google Apps, our flagship cloud product." And that number is increasing by 5,000 companies every day (up from 3,000 a day last year).
Google is even stealing the march on companies targeting businesses, with cloud-based collaborative office products that even Microsoft can't match.
Cloud, what cloud?
Google has been very good at getting ordinary people to use cloud computing without them thinking of it as such. Most people accept the usefulness of Gmail and Google Calendar without worrying that the data contained on these services is saved in one of Google's server farms dotted around the world.
Google is so reliable (it has a non-failure rate of 99.948 per cent – approximately a mere seven minutes of downtime a month) that people don't even think about backing up their emails or Google Docs to their PCs.
Most companies see the cloud as a backup solution, but Google was one of the first to see further than that. In 2009, Google Docs came out of beta and allowed anyone to create documents in the cloud via a web browser for free.
When Google Docs first appeared it was clunky and felt half finished, but now the documents is produces are customisable, shareable and let numerous people edit the same document in real time – perfect for a work or collaborative project scenario. Google has blazed a trail that has left companies like Microsoft desperate to catch up.
It isn't all altruistic, of course. The more eyes Google gets looking at its web apps as opposed to desktop programs, the more money it can make. Hence the fact that Google has made so many cloud-based apps.
The list is being added to all the time; for example, there are Google Maps, Google Mail, Google Earth, Google Docs, Google Blogger, Google Site Manager, Google Contacts and the business offering Google Apps. All of these fill a niche, and often provide a free solution where before you would have had to buy a program or do without.
The downside to this is that Google also has a record of letting its less popular services dwindle away. These include Google Wave, Google Buzz, Google Labs, Google Health and Google Powermeter. This may seem like a sensible move if few people are using them, but it no doubt alienates those who do.
Content is key
Google knows that to keep people coming back, it needs to give them access to cloud-based entertainment as well as services – hence new additions like Google Books, Music and the film rentals now available from the Android market and YouTube.
Google has always dabbled with content – its ownership of YouTube and Picasa attests to that, as do its projects that aim to digitise books that are out of print and out of copyright, but now it wants you to rent or buy directly from Google, while still keeping the products in the cloud.
Google Books was brought to the UK in October 2011. As Google said, "Readers in the UK now have access to the world's largest ebook collection, with hundreds of thousands of ebooks for sale from major UK publishers like Hachette, Random House and Penguin, as well as more than two million public domain ebooks for free." These books are then stored in the cloud and accessible via any web browser.
Also introduced in October was the Android film streaming rental service. You can choose to rent any of thousands of films and watch them in any browser at any time within 30 days of purchase, with 48 hours to play with once you hit play. A similar service is available from YouTube.
There's also the US-only Google Music, which lets you buy from a list of 13 million songs. You can also upload up to 20,000 songs to its online library, and the service will automatically upload any music you add to your computer's music folders. This means you can then play these songs from any device with an internet connection – you can access your music wherever you go. This service is free, whereas Amazon and Apple charge an annual fee to store music not bought in their stores.
The future is the cloud, and Google has the infrastructure, the money to spend on research and the vision to ensure it continues providing free apps that are game-changing. It's not only keeping up with the trends in cloud computing, with free and paid-for entertainment, it's ahead of the curve, producing products like Chrome OS that rely solely on the web for their functionality.
Google is clearly the one to watch for the future of the cloud, and with Microsoft, Apple and Amazon following it closely, the need to keep innovating will ensure it keeps producing services and content with the potential to change how you use your computer forever.
The quiet Chromebook computing revolution
If there was ever any doubt which company is the true champion of cloud computing, Google need only hold up a Chromebook running Chrome OS. It's the only company to produce a computer with an operating system that gets almost all its functionality from the internet.
For the Chromebook, Google teamed up with Acer and Samsung to produce low-powered netbooks that, when switched on, are essentially full-screen web browsers that only run web apps. It really is a revolutionary idea – so much so that when the device was first released, Sergey Brin hailed the Chromebook as a "new model of computing".
Chromebooks have only minimal local storage, so you can't install programs like Microsoft Outlook, Word or Adobe Photoshop. But, Google argues, why would you need to when you can, and probably already do, use online programs with these functions for your day-to-day needs? Web apps will let you create documents and spreadsheet, edit pictures and watch movies – all you need is an internet connection.
The simple nature of the Chromebook makes it very fast to turn on too – in a mere eight seconds you'll be ready to surf the internet. We've seen this before, of course.
This is the idea of the thin-client: an under-powered computer you could take from workstation to workstation in an office so you could work anywhere, with office servers providing the processing grunt as opposed to the devices themselves. However, here the internet provides the connection to the servers making the whole world your office.
Sadly, their uptake is currently very limited. Most commentators feel it was too much too soon; that the world, and the internet, isn't ready for solely web-connected devices.
There are other issues too. The price of the Chromebook isn't that much lower that a normal netbook, and normal netbooks have the advantage that they can run all the web apps a Chromebook can, but still let you install other programs on to it.
The fact that you always need an internet connection could be severely limiting in certain situations. Imagine turning up at to pitch an idea to a company, finding there's no mobile signal in the office you are in and having to ask for access to their Wi-Fi so you can show them your work.
The idea has a lot going for it though, and as working in the cloud becomes a reality it may become a more attractive idea. Updates to Chrome OS can be automatically added to the Chromebook via the internet, ensuring you have the latest version of the OS at all times.
As Sergey Brin said at its launch: "Ultimately the most precious resource is the user's time. I think the complexity of managing your computer is really torturing users." The fact that most of the processing is done in the cloud extends the battery life to 8.5 hours, and if you lose your Chromebook, all your data, photos and files are still merely a login away.
So how worried is Google about the slow uptake of Chrome OS and the Chromebook? We asked Robert Whiteside, Head of Google Enterprise UK, Ireland and Benelux whether cloud-based operating systems like Chrome OS could still be the future.
"Google Chrome OS is being created for people who spend most of their time on the web, so as more and more of us adopt cloud computing, its game-changing potential will only increase. Two or three years ago, a browser app looked second rate compared to a desktop application, but that isn't the case any more. A browser application can be very stable and rich."
At the moment we feel the Chromebook is a taste of the future that arrived a little too early, but watch this space…