by Don Willmott

Technology trend watchers like me are very fond of the Pew Research Center's Pew Internet & American Life Project, a research organization that calls itself a "fact tank," cranking out provocative studies on everything from cell phone distraction and broadband penetration to the digital divide and teen texting. This month the researchers tackled the question of cloud computing's current mindshare and future growth by quizzing "895 highly engaged, diverse technology stakeholders and critics."

The Experts Validate the Cloud - And Then WorryThe big headline is that 71 percent of respondents agreed with this statement:

By 2020, most people won't do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Instead, they will work in Internet-based applications such as Google Docs, and in applications run from smartphones. Aspiring application developers will develop for smartphone vendors and companies that provide Internet-based applications, because most innovative work will be done in that domain, instead of designing applications that run on a PC operating system.

While 27 percent agreed with this one:

By 2020, most people will still do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Internet-based applications like Google Docs and applications run from smartphones will have some functionality, but the most innovative and important applications will run on (and spring from) a PC operating system. Aspiring application designers will write mostly for PCs.

When I first read these two statements, I thought one said  "Cloud Yes!" and one said "Cloud No!" But then I looked again. What they actually say are "Cloud on gadgets" and "Cloud on PCs." In other words, virtually everyone surveyed agreed that by 2020, we'll do our work in the cloud. It's no longer a question of where our data and apps will reside, but how we'll access them most conveniently.

Of course, a few billion of us are already there. Perhaps more important, so are our kids. Facebook, Twitter, Hotmail, WordPress, eBay, YouTube, Flickr, and pretty much any Web site or service where you can post a comment all count as  "cloud-based apps." The question for the next decade will be how we choose to interact with them, both at home and also in the office, where IT will have to legislate how all of this is going to look.

Today laptops outsell desktop PCs, and smartphones outsell them both. The iPad is off to a rip-roaring start, and its competitors are on the way. There's an increasing amount of overlap in what our various gadgets can do, and they can all do a heck of a lot. What many of the experts who elaborated on their survey responses noted was that the cloud won't be held back by hardware but rather by the lack of bandwidth we're all going to demand. It's as if everyone in the country ran out and bought their first car before any highways had been built. Result: traffic jams. (Online HD video is going to cut us off at the knees!)

It's worth downloading the 40-page report here because many respondents share a few paragraphs of deep thoughts about cloud computing and its many implications. Most interesting for IT are the security issues that arise when you let go of your locked-down data and let it float out in the wider Web. "Trust not the cloud for reliability, security, privacy," harrumphs Barry Wellman, professor of sociology and Netlab director at the University of Toronto. Other experts predict a cloud meltdown caused either by infrastructure failure or cyberterrorism that will send us all scurrying back behind the locked doors of our data centers. We'll see.

Even if that threat is always out there, we're already well on our way to the cloud-based future. As Charlie Martin, correspondent and science and technology editor of Pajamas Media, put it, "It's not really an either/or question. By 2020, people will work on the desktop and in the cloud, never really knowing where their data 'lives.' They'll just expect that if they have it at home, it will be available on their tablet machine in Starbucks."

If nothing else, working in the cloud will be really convenient, assuming, that is, we all get the constant bandwidth we  - no matter where we are - to live that hardcore always-on digital lifestyle.