How Long Until the Cloud Renders Hard Drives Obsolete?

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Over at, my Technologizer column this week is about cloud storage: ways to keep photos, music, movies, and other files on the Internet, so they’re available from all your computers and gizmos. I cover a bunch of ways to get the job done, but none of them are purely cloud based. In every instance, hard drives attached locally to your computers are involved in the process in one way or another.

Which got me thinking: If this whole cloud thing is so powerful, will we see the day come when having local storage doesn’t seem so important anymore?

(MORE: Four Ways to Put Your Stuff in the Cloud)

In certain respects, it’s already happening. Compared to modern Windows PCs and Macs, every smartphone and tablet is short on storage–if you’ve got as much as 64GB, you’re doing very well indeed. But these gadgets don’t feel painfully constrained, because they’re designed to work well with Web-based services. Netflix, for instance, provides access to a gazillion hours of streaming entertainment–but almost all of it stayed stored on Netflix’s servers. It’s a departure from the old way of doing things (still seen in products such as Apple’s iTunes) that assumes consumers will store their entire movie collections on their devices, not in the cloud.

The trend is even creeping over to traditional PCs. My MacBook Air is, I think, the first computer I’ve ever bought that has less space than the machine it’s replacing: It has 256GB of flash storage instead of my old MacBook Pro’s 500GB hard drive. I’ve had to learn to be a tidier digital housekeeper, deleting or archiving files I don’t need. But it hasn’t been a huge hardship–in part because I’m storing less stuff on my¬† computer and spending more time with Web-based services such as Rdio.

It’s clear that one of the goals of Apple’s upcoming iCloud service is to make local storage less crucial. With it, Macs, PCs, iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads will all get sweeping features for opening and saving files that live online. As long as you have an Internet connection–yes, I understand that’s a big “if”–it shouldn’t matter much whether a particular bit of data is stored on your device or in the cloud. It surely won’t be long until the typical Mac is even more ridiculously thin than today’s models–because it has a small amount of flash storage rather than a large hard drive.

(PHOTOS: TIME’s Steve Jobs Covers)

Of course, you can argue the other way on this.

Consumers haven’t shown much interest in subscribing to cloud-based music services such as Rhapsody: Most of them appear to be happier buying songs outright from Apple and being responsible for storing them on local disks. And hard drives have gotten so cheap that there’s no economic reason not to have one or more humongous ones around. (My MacBook Air may have a relatively puny flash drive, but it’s got ready access to terabytes of space in the form of USB disks and network-attached storage.)

So what’s your take? Are giant hard drives any less important to you than they were a few years ago?

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