Where in the world will Google take us next?
The ambitious web search company joined the browser fray late last year with Chrome. It has an operating system, Android, that is running on some mobile phones and a "netbook", or pared-down Asus laptop.
Millions of people use its free email service, Gmail, and other services such as Google Docs, and Picasa, for sharing photos over the internet.
Next stop: the clouds. Cloud computing is the next new thing in the information technology world. Analyst IDC expects tens of billions of dollars to be spent on cloud computing services by 2012.
The attraction for service users, says Vernon Turner, a Boston-based IDC researcher, is that they face lower upfront IT costs, adoption of services is simple and fast, requiring few or no in-house IT skills, and with pay-as-you-go billing, IT resources are used more efficiently.
It will be, says Turner, the IT industry's delivery model for the next 20 years. All of which sounds very compelling, drawing dozens of chief executives, IT bosses and software developers to an IDC cloud computing breakfast briefing in Auckland yesterday.
Never mind that it's a new name for an old thing. Computer bureaus have for decades been selling services to, usually, big customers who would access them via heavy-duty leased telecommunications circuits.
They were big customers because they were expensive services - not the least of which was the extortionate telecommunications cost.
As these services have been marketed to a wider range of customers, the nomenclature has changed but the basic idea has stayed the same. In the late 1990s a range of "application service providers" sprang up, and mostly disappeared again, providing remote access to software such as Microsoft Office for a monthly rental.
Then came "utility computing", describing computing services provided by a third party with the same simplicity as electricity - via a plug in the wall.
Next, and bringing us to the present, came "software as a service", or SaaS. Instead of buying an accounting package to run on an office server, with the attendant complications of software upgrades and hardware maintenance, pay a service provider for use of the software.
The service provider has a data centre built to withstand power outages and equipment failure and the customer can access the software over a comparatively cheap broadband internet connection.
And so to cloud computing, which is an extension of SaaS. Google, Microsoft and Amazon.com - yes, the online book-seller - are aiming to get the lion's share of the billions that IDC is forecasting this market will be worth.
All three are reputed to have invested heavily in data centres. All provide software developers with tools to enable applications to be hosted on their respective clouds.
But users might have some legitimate reservations. What, for example, are the security implications for a New Zealand organisation of trusting your data and business applications to a service provider with a computing facility on a distant continent?
Could New Zealand's creaking internet infrastructure possibly provide connection speeds fast enough to make this kind of computing practical?
IDC's Turner gives an answer to the second question that effectively rules out the big three as cloud computing suppliers for New Zealand customers - for now, at any rate. Asked whether he thought local data centres would be necessary for cloud computing to be viable here, he answered, "I'd guess yes."
If Google, Microsoft or Amazon has built such facilities in this country, they're well hidden. Google Australia and New Zealand head of engineering Alan Noble as good as confirmed it doesn't have a data centre in this part of the world when he was in Auckland late last month.
Noble was a speaker at a Ministry of Economic Development broadband conference, where he was putting the case for maintaining the internet as an open network that would foster the birth of future Googles, Trade Mes and Amazons.
"We would never comment on where our data centre is ... but at the present time we don't have a data centre in Australia," Noble said.
As for New Zealand: "I think it's quite likely we'll have some infrastructure in New Zealand at some point but it's a question of when."
Such coyness is part of Google's stringent security which makes its data centres "probably the most secure on the planet. Security is tremendously important - it can't be compromised. Part of Google's value proposition is that because we have the trust of users we will look after their information."
Google is already taking paying customers with it into the cloud, including Auckland and Waikato Universities. Gmail and its other applications are giving millions of others a free ride skywards.
For those scared of heights, Noble offers this: "Cloud computing, if anything, is likely to enhance security."
A platform for the future
* Spending on cloud computing services is expected to treble in the next three years, reaching US$42 billion ($79 billion) a year by 2012, say analysts IDC.
* Cost cutting is the main reason for using such services, said more than half the IT managers who answered an IDC survey published last month.
* However, many IT executives believe there are not yet enough cloud services available, that the strategy is too immature to be judged - or that it's just a new name for an old concept.
Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland-based technology journalist.