The rapid spread of tablet devices like the Apple iPad and HP Slate could prove to be a boon to providers of online storage services as users seek ubiquitous data access and synchronisation across multiple mobile platforms for devices that don't have much internal storage capacity.
The flexibility that comes with cloud storage "is not just a nice thing to have but a necessity when you're dealing with storage-limited devices," said Avi Greengart, a consumer devices analyst at research firm Current Analysis in Sterling, Va. "If you have a device based on flash memory, you don't want to sync everything."
Most of the mobile tablet devices today use NAND flash technology to offer limited memory capacity, typically 64GB or less.
For example, iPads are available with 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB flash drives. And Hewlett-Packard disclosed that its upcoming Slate tablet computers will be available later this year with either 32GB or 64GB flash drives.
Greengart said that he expects that future tablet computers are also unlikely to offer the high storage capacities available in netbook and desktop computers, since they will be built more to consume data than to create it.
Tablet users can choose from several providers of cloud-based storage, including Box.net, Live Mesh, JungleDisk, DropBox and SkyDrive. In addition to offering online storage services, some of those vendors let users synchronise folders and files between multiple devices.
Adam Couture, an analyst at Gartner, agreed that growing use of tablet devices could lead to significant growth of the storage services market.
"These services to date have been used by people with notebook computers and PCs that [also] have hefty hard drives," Couture said. Cloud products could become the primary storage option for users of tablet devices, he added.
"Even to use the apps on a BlackBerry, you've got to buy incremental memory. Wouldn't it be nice instead of doing that if you could use some drive in the sky for incremental memory? I can see the world going there," Couture said.
Cloud-based storage services "have been there for a very long time, but the introduction of the iPad is making everything old new again. We're looking at it in new terms," Couture said. "It means you're not going to be synchronising your data at cross purposes now that you can access that cloud in the sky, it doesn't matter what device you're using because you're always going to have the right file ... and you're just going to access it from different devices."
Some cloud storage and data synchronisation providers moved quickly to hype their offerings to iPad users.
For example, when Apple started shipping the iPad last Saturday, storage-as-a-service provider SugarSync announced an application that allows iPad users to synchronise and share any files, photos, music and video stored in the cloud.
SugarSync CEO Laura Yecies said the service lets users choose the level of granularity they want when synchronising data.
For example, users can choose to synchronize a single file rather than an entire folder between any combination of Macintosh computers, Windows PCs and/or smartphones. That content can be accessed remotely without utilising onboard storage.
In addition, video, music or gaming content can also be streamed to any number of platforms from SugarSync storage devices.
Like other online storage services vendors, SugarSync offers a 2GB capacity without charge. Users can upgrade to a 30GB capacity for $50 per year capacities of up to 500GB for an additional fee.
Yecies said SugarSync is complementary to Apple's own cloud-based iWork document creation and editing tool. The Apple tool creates the content that SugarSync can upload to multiple platforms. The iWork tool is part of Apple's MobileMe online storage service.
"MobileMe still requires you to move data around. With SugarSync, when you install it, you can choose any folder or file you want to synchronise," said Drew Garcia, vice president of product management at SugarSync.
Meanwhile, Rackspace's Cloud unit launched a free iPad application that lets users manage servers from the iPad. The CloudPro tool enables IT workers to use an iPad to monitor servers, turn on backups, create new servers, manage scheduling, and re-boot or delete servers.
Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is [email protected].