Five things you need to know about 'the cloud'

Menacing as this hazy tech term may sound, the cloud is actually a regular part of daily digital life. In fact, gadget analysts expect this metaphorical cloud to envelop more of the world in coming years.

3. Does new technology make the cloud possible?

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3D computer servers in perspective over white

The idea of the cloud dates back to the early days of computing, when university supercomputers shared their processing power with lots of dummy terminals. Weiner says he first heard the new term in 2005, when speedy Internet connections, ever-improving server specs, and years of software development gave this old model a second life.

Getting hundreds or thousands of Google servers to efficiently divide and share the labor has played a huge part in the company's success. The search engine giant could probably offer translation software for smart phones that doesn't require an Internet connection, says Josh Estelle, a senior software engineer on the Google Translate team. But by relying on servers, the smart phone app takes up only 3.2 megabytes (equivalent to a single song file), rather than clogging up a phone's relatively tiny storage with "billions if not trillions" of translation data points, he says.

And as wireless Internet connections get faster, so will many cloud services. "On average, the speed of your phone's connection to the Internet" is more important "than the time spent on our servers," he says. "Our servers can translate sentences in a few hundredths of a second."

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