Most Americans don't yet understand cloud computing, but are using cloud-based online applications, according to a new survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Sixty nine percent of online Americans use cloud computing in some form, with the largest usage seen for webmail (56 percent of respondents) and personal photo storage (34 percent).
The most interesting finding of the report is that 29 percent of respondents say they use "online applications such as Google Documents or Adobe Photoshop Express." The use of online services that replace existing desktop applications strikes me as the key metric in assessing the future of cloud computing. Pew also reports that 7 percent of those surveyed store videos online, while 5 percent use online storage services to either store files or back up their hard drive.
The Pew report, Use of Cloud Computing Applications and Services (PDF), is based on a survey of more than 1,500 Internet users conducted in April and May of this year, and has a margin of error of 3 percent.
Another sure sign of growth for cloud computing is the demographics of the user base. The highest uptake for cloud computing apps is 87 percent among the 18-29 age group, while usage declines with each successive age category down to 46 percent for those over 65.
Not surprisingly, the highest usage rates for cloud computing are linked with mobility and a respondent's use of wireless Internet access:
Roughly half (51%) of those who have done at least one of the listed cloud applications say that ease and convenience are a major reason why they use an application that has them storing personal data on the web. Some 41% say a major reason they use such applications is that they want to access information no matter what computer they are using.
A potential stumbling block for cloud apps and business models is privacy. Pew says users show "show high levels of concern" about having their data used in online marketing or even for targeted ads (although that doesn't seem to have hurt Gmail adoption).
Cloud users show high levels of concern when presented with scenarios in which companies might use their data for purposes users may or may not fully understand ahead of time. This suggests user worry over control of the information they store online. For nearly all of the scenarios shown, most users of cloud applications say they would be very concerned if their data were sold, used in marketing campaigns, not deleted as requested, or used for targeted ads.
This hasn't seemed to slow Gmail adoption, but the data suggests this will be a key issue as users become more aware of cloud computing and online apps.
Pew Internet defines "cloud computing" quite broadly, but the data provides a fascinating glimpse into adoption and user attitudes about online applications. If you're interested in the future cloud computing, it's essential reading.