With the launch of Google Drive, the new cloud storage service unveiled today by Google, mainstream tech users will soon find themselves engaging in cloud storage and file synchronization among mobile, laptop and desktop systems.
And that will likely change the way we use the Internet, analysts say.
"Personal cloud is far more than just storage; it's synchronization, it's streaming, it's sharing files. Those ultimately become more important to the consumer than things like the personal computer," said Gartner Research Director Michael Gartenberg. "The age of the personal cloud becomes far more important than the personal computer."
After years of rumors and speculation, Google officially launched its cloud storage and file sharing service, Google Drive, offering users 5GB of free storage space. More importantly, Google Drive is tied into all of Google's other services.
The new service, for instance, will allow users to collaborate on spreadsheets, presentations and video, as the company's existing Google Docs service is built into Google Drive.
Once you choose to share content with others, you can add and reply to comments on anything, such as PDFs, images or video files, and receive notifications when other people comment on shared items, Google said.
Users can start with the initial 5GB of space. (By comparison, Microsoft offers 7GB of free capacity with its SkyDrive offering, Apple offers 5GB of space, and DropBox offers 2GB.)
For users who need more room for their digital content, Google allows an upgrade to 25GB for $2.49 a month, 100GB for $4.99 a month or 1TB for $49.99 a month. When you upgrade to a paid account, your Gmail account storage will also expand to 25GB.
"At those prices points, for the cost of cup of coffee a month you can get 100GB of online storage and synchronization from Google and have it work on your Mac and PC and on your iPhone and your Android device," Gartenberg said. "This is where they're pretty disruptive in terms of price compared to competitors."
Google Drive can be installed on a Mac or PC; users can also download the Drive application to an Android phone or tablet. Google already has an API for developers and said it's "working hard" on an app for iOS devices.
"And regardless of platform, blind users can access Drive with a screen reader," Google said.
Just yesterday, Microsoft announced it had done away with its convoluted Live Mesh system and adopted a consumer-friendly service -- SkyDrive -- that's closer to what Dropbox offers. The company also announced an app for Windows and for Mac OS X that integrates SkyDrive with the local OS.
Just as with Dropbox, files can be stored in the SkyDrive folder, and they will be uploaded to the cloud storage service as well as synchronized to a user's other mobile and desktop devices.
While other pundits have said that Google was "out to lunch" when it came to offering a comprehensive cloud storage service, Gartenberg said it was worth the wait as the company has hit the mark on every important feature.
Google Drive enables ubiquitous search
Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester Research, agreed. "What's very interesting is having such a capability tied to one of the largest email offerings on the planet," he said. "Microsoft's SkyDrive [has] been around for a while and linked to Hotmail, but this more significant than that."
Unique to Google Drive is its ability to search email, access Google Docs, and use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for scanned documents and image recognition through Google Goggles. The image recognition also allows users to search photographs to identify geographical locations.
Gillett said he'd like to see tighter integration between Gmail and Google Drive, such as the ability to right click on a document and be able to automatically embed it in an email.
"This is pretty cool to have a Google Doc experience and your email in the same account and to be able to do file synchronization and have integrated search," Gillett said. "That's unique."
The launch of Google Drive puts the Google in direct competition with Apple and its iCloud offering, which ties a cloud storage and file synchronization service with its other services, such as its iTunes online music offering. The challenge Google has now is that it must evangelize its service to consumers just as Apple has with iCloud, explaining in common terms how it works.
"Apple has commercials running now about iCloud, and synchronization and how it moves from device to device and screen to screen and how your content can flow," Gartenberg said.
Smaller cloud services threatened
While Google Drive competes with Microsoft's SkyDrive and Apple's iCloud, the companies that are more at risk are smaller consumer service providers, such as DropBox, Box.net, SugarSync and YouSendIt. Those sites have appealed more to technology enthusiasts, not average consumers. But when it comes to adoption, relationships matter.
Hundreds of millions of consumers already have a relationship with Google through its email, document storage and search services in much the same way other users have relationships with Apple and Microsoft.
"They don't have much of a relationship with theses smaller [cloud] companies," Gartenberg said. "The challenge for these smaller companies is reaching out to consumers or shifting to somewhat of a different market; the problem is that Google also wants the business market, the small business market and ultimately the enterprise IT market."
Brad Nisbet, an analyst with market research firm IDC, said a business offering is the one place where Google Drive falls somewhat flat. What often happens is that employees begin using a consumer-class cloud service for storing personal photos, music and documents and then want to use it in their work place.
IT administrators have struggled in recent months with allowing consumer cloud storage services behind their firewalls because the offerings lack administrative controls, such as the ability to securely collaborate through encrypted documents, remotely delete files and control who can access what. In more recent months, consumer-oriented services such as SpiderOak and Dropbox with its Dropbox for Teams, have begun adding those capabilities.
Cloud-based backup services such as Mozy and Carbonite have also made strides in the business market.
"From Google's perspective, what I think is important to point out is they're going to need to develop those levels of control, which will be attractive to an IT organization," Nisbet said. "I think that's what's becoming more appealing to the IT organizations in all types of businesses. They want to maintain a level of control."
Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Read more about cloud computing in Computerworld's Cloud Computing Topic Center.