Author’s Note: This article is part of a Tech Topics column I write for a small print publication focused on helping small business owners become more comfortable with technical topics.

Cloud Computing is similar to how it sounds. Instead of keeping your data on hard drives inside computers at your office. It lives up in the “Cloud.” What is the Cloud? It is a generic name given to remote servers that host and maintain applications and data. And it can be a real asset to your business.

Instead of worrying about storing and backing up all your business data at your office, the cloud gives you peace of mind that comes with the benefit of backups and redundancy unlike anything you could do in-house. The hallmark of a Cloud Computing application is anything you use without having to install any software on your computer or smartphone. Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail and the email provided by your ISP are all examples of Cloud Computing applications.
Similarly, Netflix Instant, the video streaming service they offer is another example. You do not have to download the movie to your hard drive then watch it. The video file lives in the Cloud, managed by Netflix, and for a price, you have access to that file.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Dropbox. This service changes the way people use and manage files. The service is deceptively simple. Once installed and registered with the web site, it will place a folder on your Mac or PC. Your “dropbox” is just what it sounds like. You can place anything there you like. Only instead of living on your computer it will first be backed up to the web site, where it will be accessible from anywhere you have an internet connection.

Second, if you install Dropbox on more than one computer and login to the software, it will keep the two folders in sync. Additionally, the service will keep backups and previous versions of all the times in the dropbox. This is especially important as it relates to mobile devices.
Enough talk about clouds, what does it mean to you and how can it help you out?

Apple is bringing Cloud printing to the masses with AirPrint. Their technology piggy backs off Bonjour, their zero-configuration printing technology for Macs and PCs. AirPrint only works with a very limited number of HP printers but more support will be expanded in the future. The idea is simple. If you’re on an iPhone or iPad and there is a printer connected to your wireless network that supports AirPrint, the iPhone/iPad will locate it, install a driver, and allow you to print, all with no effort on the user’s part. The technology is still young but once it becomes more mainstream it will make printing from Apple’s mobile devices as simple as sending an email.

Not to be left behind, Google also threw its hat into the ring with Google Cloud Print. Similar to Apple’s small offering, Google Cloud Print only works in Google Chrome browsers and only on a Windows operating system. However, the idea is equally as simple. Go to the options in a Chrome browser, sign in to your existing Google Account to use Cloud Print and suddenly you’ll have access to any printer installed on the Windows PC from Gmail for Mobiles devices, Google Docs and the Chrome OS operating system Google is currently beta testing.

Google is pushing this technology quickly because of its upcoming Chrome OS operating system because the entire thing is one big web browser. There is no underlying operating so everything must work within a browser.

Never far from the printer scene, has HP had an entire ePrint initiative going. HP has taken a slightly different route by assigning its printers with ePrint a unique email address where the applications designed to work with it, will send the file to that address and the printer will then print it. The real benefit here is the print can be used from anything that can send an email.

So far it is only the ePrint printers which Apple’s Airprint works with. HP also promises direct support for Google’s Cloud Print. In the future, the current requirement of Google to have a printer connected to a Windows PC to work will be erased. HP’s purchase of Palm and the Web OS mobile platform will be particularly exciting as HP has announced a new line of Web OS smart phones and tablets and you can bet they will all be capable of printing.

The days of a mobile phone or tablet needing a PC or Mac to print are gone. Gone are the days of worrying about print drivers and PPDs. Gone are the days of worrying about whether a manufacturer had made a drive for your particular device. In the coming days, the barrier to print will be erased on Apple, Google Chrome OS, Android and HP/Palm devices. Microsoft is lagging behind with no system in place but you can bet they’ll get on board in the coming months. Though, Google’s current system relies on a Windows PC to operate so they’re not totally out of the game.

These are exciting times for printing in the mobile world. As phones and tablets become smarter and more business travelers adopt them instead of laptops, the ability to print from them will be in increasing demand.

Instead of clients walking in with laptops, in the very near future they may walk in with an iPad or other tablet with Dropbox installed. They’ll be able to pull their presentation or contract out of the cloud and print, without using a computer.

The Cloud is not all beautiful sunsets and safety nets. Giving up control of your data to someone else can have its problems too. The latest high-profile incident was when Google lost 150,000 Gmail accounts back in February of this year. This isn’t even the first time Google has had problems with losing customer’s mail. A similar event took place in 2006 though on a much smaller scale.

I don’t mean to pick on Google, as T-Mobile and Microsoft had one of the biggest meltdowns when they lost all data from users of the T-Mobile Sidekick back in late 2009. The Sidekick is different from a normal cell phone in that it stores all of your data, contacts, photos, etc in the cloud instead of on the device itself. When a server error took down the Sidekick servers, all of the customer’s data went with it.

Similarly, there have been security issues with the cloud. With Gawker Media being hacked in Dec 2010 and their user’s passwords leaked and even, an online marketplace for crafters and artists recently exposed the purchases of its users. Just as with all technologies, there are trade-offs to be made. There are a ton of benefits to Cloud Computing but it is not without its risks.