Lots of software is now based in ‘the cloud’. This is a term for a huge collection of servers (specialist computers) networked together and providing data storage and manipulation services, and much of what happens on the internet lives there. Even if this is tedious gibberish to you, the important thing is that it means yet more free stuff.
You’ll have noticed that a number of major genealogy data sites now invite you to build your family tree within their website, with sophisticated tools that are beginning to approach the level of software like that which you download to your own computer. They usually read GEDCOM, so you can swap data between systems, and they have the benefit of taking the responsibility of the safety of your data. On the other hand, are you happy to trust them to look after that – and will such services always remain free?
But ‘cloud computing’ is far more than just specialist genealogy software. Google already dominates the internet with various cloud-based services which you may or may not know. Want a free email address? Try http://mail.google.com to get a gmail address. Don’t want to shell out on a copy of Microsoft Office for your PC? Try Google Docs, a suite of free word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software, which you can access from anywhere with web access, and can use to collaborate with other people – ideal if you’ve teamed up with other family members to research the tree, for example.
There are other great services online. Dropbox is one – this gives Mac and PC users a folder that looks like any other on their computer, but anything you put in it can be shared easily with other people, and it also provides a web interface for accessing your stuff from anywhere. It even backs up deleted files just in case. Dropbox offers a generous 2Gb of storage space (think the complete works of Shakespeare 400 times over) completely free. It also has a built-in photo gallery system, so you could put snapshots from the family album, or from your visit to a graveyard, in for others to look at.
If you have a broadband connection, plus a microphone built into or attached to your computer, or a separate one that plugs in, try Skype too. This is an internet phone service. You can pay for credits for cheap phone calls to anyone’s landline or mobile – but if you get them to sign up for a (free) account, you can call them up, computer to computer, for a chat for absolutely nothing.