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Google is expected to shortly launch a major new consumer service offering cloud-based storage for photos and other online content.

The effort - dubbed Google Drive - is likely to offer 5GB (gigabytes) of free storage with more available for a monthly fee.

It would challenge services including Dropbox and Microsoft's SkyDrive.

Experts suggest it could also force rival Facebook to enter the cloud market.

Cloud services have become hugely popular as people seek to access content from a variety of places and devices.

Reports suggest that Google Drive will work with sophisticated image search technology to let consumers sift through a wide variety of document types, including PDF files and photographs.

Richard Edwards, principal analyst at research firm Ovum, thinks that it may act as a wake-up call to others.

"Facebook doesn't have a cloud service but this may prompt it into an acquisition," he said.

"If Facebook was to buy Dropbox that would be a game-changer."

Google was "very late to the market" he added.

"I would see this as an extension to its Google Docs offering and it could provide value to its social network Google+, allowing the sharing of files that are too big to email."

The most important aspect of Google Drive would be how it worked with the myriad of devices people carried, he suggested.

"I will be looking to see how I can synchronise content stored in the cloud to all my devices to access as and when I want."

Digital assets
A recent study commissioned by cloud service RackSpace and conducted by Goldsmith University concluded that a new generation of Britons was growing up in the cloud.

A quarter of the 2,000 interviewees estimated that they had £200 or more worth of music, videos, photos in their personal cloud.

31% said that they had considered digital possessions as a potential "digital inheritance" that they could leave behind when they died.

In anticipation of Google's announcement, rivals have updated their own services.

Dropbox now allows users to give non-members access to files via emailed links. Until now it had required both parties to have signed up to its service and have shared folders.

Microsoft has also improved its SkyDrive service.

Among other features, it has integrated the drive into Windows Explorer and Apple's Finder so that it works as an extension of the desktop.

It also added capability to access files stored on the drive from an iPad as well as the iPhone and Windows Phone-based handsets.
BBC News - Google Drive to offer free storage in the cloud
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