It may be the most widely misunderstood term since "one size fits all." We all know about "the cloud." But what does that term specifically mean?

Eight years after first coming on the scene as a big trend, the word "cloud" can still cause confusion--even among people who work with technology. My husband, a computer geek, explains it to civilians by saying that "the cloud" is the same as "the Internet." That's a simple explanation that may seem like the right one. When something (such as our email or our music) is stored in the cloud, we need the Internet to get to it. But the two things aren't the same. In fact, some "private" clouds have nothing to do with the Internet at all.

Like "certified pre-owned car" and "faux pearls" cloud is a term that's been seized by marketers, in this case to make something dry and technically complex sound useful and non-threatening. Who could be afraid of a cloud?

Here's a dryer but less ambiguous way to say it: "distributed computing." Imagine you're using your computer to write a document. If your computer crashes while you're in mid-sentence, you won't be able to work on that document again until it comes back to life, and depending how your software works, you may lose some or all of your work. Now imagine a magical world where you're still typing away at your document on one keyboard, and reading it on one screen, but you actually have several computers all working on your document (and other people's documents) at the same time. If one of them crashes--or even slows down--you won't even notice because the rest will pick up the slack. 

That's it--that's all "cloud" really means. And by the way, that is exactly what would happen if you were writing your document as a Google Doc, rather than using a word processor on your own computer. 

So why is it such a big deal?

For the same reason that Zipcar, Airbnb, and Uber are a big deal--the sharing economy. On steroids. Everyday users take advantage of the cloud all the time, for instance by using Dropbox (which will store your document for you in a distributed fashion so that if your computer crashes you can get to it from a different computer). Or by using a small share of vast resources, such as Google's Gmail servers or Spotify's music library. These services and more, hosted across vast networks of servers, keep chugging out whatever we want whenever we want it because the cloud structure allows them to do that. Even if an earthquake hit the Googleplex in Mountain View, the distributed hosting that we call "cloud" would allow Gmail to keep working because Google has more than a million servers spread out all over the world. 

The other two big advantages of the sharing economy apply to the cloud as well: much lower costs and much greater flexibility. This is especially handy for  entrepreneurs. Instead of having to buy enough computing power to run all the software and host all the data you need for your operation, you can rent that space inexpensively from Amazon Web Services or any number of other providers. Or you can make your life really simple by using a cloud-based service that runs software across its own set of distributed servers so that all you have to do is buy a monthly subscription., Evernote, Netflix...there are any number of these services out there for nearly every aspect of our work and personal lives. The reason these companies and many others have become such huge forces in the marketplace is because they've found ways to leverage distributed hosting and deliver services over the Internet in ways that would not be possible otherwise.

So that's it. Next time you hear "cloud," instead of thinking of it as a vague and confusing term usually applied to things that use the Internet, think "distributed computing" instead. It's a good thing to understand this term properly. Because it really is one of those technologies that changes absolutely everything.