Today we're beginning a series exploring the world of cloud services from a consumer's point of view. The word "cloud" refers to an online repository for your software, applications and data. Steve Jobs called this a "digital hub" and, as he explained to his biographer Walter Issacson, "over the next few years, the hub is going to move from your computer into the cloud." Even if you're not an Apple user, the move to a cloud hub is coming your way no matter whose hardware you use. It's going to be a big transition.

We have a special channel devoted to exploring the Cloud from a business point of view, called ReadWriteCloud. But over the past year it's become increasingly apparent that cloud services will soon rule the lives of consumers too. Which cloud service, or combination of cloud services, is right for you?

If you're wondering why you'll need to move to a cloud service, it's because we consumers no longer just use our PCs to store and access our content. We now use multiple devices - PCs, laptops, smartphones, tablets and more. Cloud services will increasingly be used to centralize and sync your content, so that it can be accessed across those devices.

The Contenders

You're most likely going to end up with a mix and match of cloud services. The hardware you use will be one determining factor. For example I predominantly use Apple devices, so its new iCloud is going to become a key cloud service for me (more on Apple's increasing power in the cloud world below).

What applications you already use is also an important factor. For example, I'm a heavy user of Google services. Gmail has been my primary email application for years, I use Google Docs a lot and Google Calendar is where I organize my daily agenda. So while it's not a separately branded cloud service like iCloud, my Google Account is where I manage a lot of my key business data - and it's all hosted in the cloud. It's not necessary for me to host that much of my business content with Google, but it does help with sync and utilizing data across products.

So those are my two main cloud service providers: Apple and Google. Depending on your own hardware and software makeup, you might opt for other companies. Microsoft offers cloud services like SkyDrive and its Windows Live products (including Hotmail). Amazon is another strong contender. It cannily invested heavily in cloud infrastructure over the past 5 years. Amazon has also been releasing various cloud services, such as the March launch of a music storage locker called Amazon Cloud Drive.

There are a lot of specialist cloud services available, too. For example I use Evernote for online notes, Dropbox for files and Instapaper for cross-device news reading. Any one of these or other specialist services may yet emerge as a top dog in the consumer cloud space. My money would be on Dropbox, which has now become my central online repository of files.

Apple Could Show The Way Again, With iCloud

While it's a relatively new product, iCloud is going to be the one to watch in this market. It's certainly illustrative of how important the Consumer Cloud now is.

Steve Jobs positioned iCloud earlier this year as being the next big step in Apple's evolution. Apple started out as a computer company, then it morphed into a consumer electronics company (iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc.). Now Apple is offering an integrated cloud service to support all of those devices.

Steve Jobs announced iCloud at Apple's World Wide Developers Conference in June this year. It became available in early October, as part of the rollout of iOS5 - the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system.

In the Steve Jobs biography, there were a couple of key quotes that illustrate how key iCloud is to Apple's future. "We need to be the company that manages your relationship with the cloud," Jobs is quoted as saying, "[that] streams your music and videos from the cloud, stores your pictures and information, and maybe even your medical data."

In 2010, before iCloud had been announced, Jobs told his biographer:

"We have a solution. It's our next big insight. We are going to demote the PC and the Mac to be just a device, and we are going to move the digital hub into the cloud."

Of course that insight wasn't new. Others, including all of the companies listed in this article, have been busy building online digital hubs. But nobody has really nailed it yet. Including iCloud at this point.

In upcoming posts, we'll delve into iCloud and other cloud offerings in more detail. As consumers, we just want to have our content available across all of our devices. That's currently easier said than done.

Let us know in the comments if you have any burning questions or issues about the world of the consumer cloud; we'll do our best to address them in future posts.