Cloud computing may have been one of the biggest "buzzwords" (buzz phrases?) of this past year. From webmail to storage sites to web-based applications, everything online was sold under a new moniker in 2008: they're all "cloud" services now. Yet even though millions of internet users make use of these online services in some way, it seems that we haven't been completely sold on the cloud being any more safe or stable than data stored on our own computers.

Do You Trust Cloud Computing?

In thinking about this issue, we posed the question on the social web aggregation service (and new-fangled discussion board), FriendFeed to see what people would say. Surprisingly, even on a site that tends to attract a lot of technology's earliest adopters, the responses were mixed. When asked the question: "Do you trust the cloud?," the majority of responses either came back as a flat-out "no" or as a longer explanation as to why their response was a "maybe" or a "sometimes." In other words, some people trust the cloud here, but not there, or for this, but not that.

For many, the cloud is no more trustworthy, than a hard drive on their own machine. Despite the fact that web-based services, like Google's Gmail, Calendar, and Picasa, live on some of Google's hundreds of thousands of servers, there's still the feeling that data you don't have access to on your own machine is data you could lose.

Many respondents stated that they kept local backups of important data in addition to whatever data was also stored online. Others cited a combination of cloud plus local data as the ideal solution for cloud services. Says William Steward, "Evernote works as I know there's a backup on two of my laptops, as well as the cloud."

Why No Trust?

It seems that trusting the cloud wasn't a simple "yes" or "no" question. Some said the cloud was trustworthy enough for non-critical data, but not for secure and private communications, such as those used in the enterprise. And still others noted that trusting cloud services was risky, especially given the recent shutdowns of the once-hot services like I Want Sandy, Pownce, Google Notebook, and Jaiku.

Yet one of the most thoughtful comments came from Todd McKinney who noted that "most things today aren't really in the cloud so much as they are a copy on a single company's server." What he means by this is that when storing data in the cloud there should be some sort of built in redundancy. "The day when Facebook can delete an account and they can't delete the account assets, then maybe we can start thinking about trust," says Todd.

Basically what Todd's envisioning is what a real future of cloud computing should look like. Data stored online shouldn't solely exist in one place and time. Once "cloud-stored," data should be available from anywhere and no one company should have control over whether that data lives or dies.

What We Need

Getting there won't be easy. How can single assets - like photos on Facebook, for example -seamlessly spring into existence at the same time you upload data to Flickr, or SmugMug, or Picasa, or SkyDrive? There is no solution for this yet. But this is the still undelivered promise of Microsoft's Live Mesh (see this video - half an hour in, Twitter and Facebook connectors are demoed.) Although intriguing, no real connectors like that have been released to the public. And no competitors have built anything similar.

At the very least, some basic cross-posting services, tools, or desktop applications could move us towards a future where local data was replicated to numerous clouds with one simple action. Even a basic photo uploader tool that synced pictures to all the free online services would be much appreciated at this point. Or a document uploader that synced files between your computer, Live Mesh, Google Docs, Zoho, and others. That way, we could live in the best of both worlds with the confidence that our data was relatively safe...somewhere.

At the end of the day, just labeling services as "cloud computing" applications isn't enough to change people's mindsets about what it means to really move to the cloud. Companies need to show us more stability and security and need to provide us with more solutions to link and/or sync our local data to their services. When that day arrives, we'll know that we've finally reached the world of cloud computing. Until then, those clouds will remain just whiffs of smoke.

Image credit: Google services via Lonesailor