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A solid majority of technology experts and stakeholders participating in the fourth Future of the Internet survey expect that by 2020 most people will access software applications online and share and access information through the use of remote server networks, rather than depending primarily on tools and information housed on their individual, personal computers.

“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,” said Janna Quitney Anderson, of  Internet & American Life Project.

Among the most popular cloud services now are social networking sites (the 500 million people using Facebook are being social in the cloud), webmail services, microblogging and blogging services such as Twitter and WordPress, video-sharing sites like YouTube, picture-sharing sites such as Flickr, document and applications sites like Google Docs, social-bookmarking sites like Delicious, business sites like eBay, and ranking, rating and commenting sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor.

This does not mean, however, that most of these experts think the desktop computer will disappear soon. The majority sees a hybrid life in the next decade, as some computing functions move towards the cloud and others remain based on personal computers.

The highly engaged, diverse set of respondents to an online, opt-in survey included 895 technology stakeholders and critics. The study was fielded by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center. Some 71% agreed with the statement:

“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,” added Janna Quitney Anderson.

Most of those surveyed noted that cloud computing will continue to expand and come to dominate information transactions because it offers many advantages, allowing users to have easy, instant, and individualized access to tools and information they need wherever they are, locatable from any networked device. Some experts noted that people in technology-rich environments will have access to sophisticated-yet-affordable local networks that allow them to "have the cloud in their homes."

Most of the experts noted that people want to be able to use many different devices to access data and applications, and - in addition to the many mentions of smartphones driving the move to the cloud - some referred to a future featuring many more different types of networked appliances. A few mentioned the "internet of things" - or a world in which everyday objects have their own IP addresses and can be tied together in the same way that people are now tied together by the internet. So, for instance, if you misplace your TV remote, you can find it because it is tagged and locatable through the internet.

Some experts in this survey said that for many individuals the switch to mostly cloud-based work has already occurred, especially through the use of browsers and social networking applications. They point out that many people today are primarily using smartphones, laptops, and desktop computers to network with remote servers and carry out tasks such as working in Google Docs, following web-based RSS (really simple syndication) feeds, uploading photos to Flickr and videos to YouTube, doing remote banking, buying, selling and rating items at Amazon.com, visiting with friends on Facebook, updating their Twitter accounts and blogging on WordPress.

Many of the people who agreed with the statement that cloud computing will expand as the internet evolves said the desktop will not die out but it will be used in new, improved ways in tandem with remote computing. Some survey participants said they expect that a more sophisticated desktop-cloud hybrid will be people's primary interface with information. They predicted the desktop and individual, private networks will be able to provide most of the same conveniences as the cloud but with better functionality, overall efficiency, and speed. Some noted that general-purpose in-home PC servers can do much of the work locally via a connection to the cloud to tap into resources for computing-intensive tasks.

Among the defenses for a continuing domination of the desktop, many said that small, portable devices have limited appeal as a user interface and they are less than ideal for doing work. They also expressed concern about the security of information stored in the "cloud" (on other institutions' servers), the willingness of cloud operators to handle personal information in a trustworthy way, and other problems related to control over data when it is stored in the cloud, rather than on personally-controlled devices.

Some respondents observed that putting all or most of faith in remotely accessible tools and data puts a lot of trust in the humans and devices controlling the clouds and exercising gatekeeping functions over access to that data. They expressed concerns that cloud dominance by a small number of large firms may constrict the internet's openness and its capacity to inspire innovation - that people are giving up some degree of choice and control in exchange for streamlined simplicity.

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