A random walk through Silicon Valley can be confusing to the prospective investor who doesn't come steeped in years of high-tech experience. Buzzwords and acronyms abound, and nearly every investing thesis seems to rely on some obscure piece of Valley lingo.

That just won't do. I'm here to straighten out a few of the most common -- and most exasperating -- terms for your education, amusement, and enrichment:

Virtual computing
No, this is not about going into virtual reality with a laptop to get some work done. Instead, companies such as VMware (NYSE: VMW) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) now sell software that makes a boxful of computer hardware act as if it were a bundle of smaller computers.

This is handy for making the computer run more efficiently, but it also makes for simpler management, disaster recovery, and maintenance. Shuffling bits and bytes around the data center with software will always be easier than jumping into hardware with screwdrivers and anti-static wrist straps at the ready.

Virtual computing tends to lower costs and improve day-to-day operations, and it even comes with eco-friendly benefits. It's no wonder this technology is seen as perhaps the most promising investment opportunity on the planet.

Cloud computing
This one is tricky, because the "cloud" in computing terms can be several things.

  1. A puff of blue smoke rising from fresh short-circuits. Ouch.
  2. The Internet as a whole. Under this definition, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is a cloud computing giant thanks to network-hosted services such as Gmail and Google Docs. If the program or data you're using sits on a server in Nowhere, Okla., or Karaganda, Kazakhstan, you're doing some cloud computing. In this form, the concept has been around forever (in Internet terms), but the cloud tag is newer. Think about storing and editing a document on Google's servers. You never have to physically save the document on your hard drive, but it's accessible from anywhere and can be readily saved back to Google with little headache. This is the essence of cloud computing.
  3. Resting on the nimble system-management structures of virtual computing (see above), Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) and others sell virtual servers on demand. Using virtual machines, you can provision more or less computing horsepower as you need it, cutting costs and scaling up services quickly. This allows companies to outsource parts of their data centers, and it is currently the most hardcore cloud computing solution available. It's a big, big opportunity for a sector leader such as Amazon.

May refer to the savior of the universe, but it more commonly refers to one of these:

  1. Flash memory -- the kind of memory chips you'll find in digital cameras, smartphones, and USB memory sticks. Barring Pink Sheets dwellers such as Korean tech giant Samsung, Micron (NYSE: MU) and SanDisk are the best investable names in flash memory chips, and the broader memory market is the market is finally recovering from several years of brutal price wars. Some might say that you already missed the boat on that drastic turnaround, but I would disagree.
  2. Adobe Flash, formerly known as Macromedia Flash, is a software platform that lets Web designers funnel rich media such as games and online video clips to your computer. Adobe Systems (Nasdaq: ADBE) bought Macromedia for $3.4 billion, mostly to get its hands on the Flash assets. The idea is to write code once and run it just about anywhere, with one notable exception: Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) has promised not to allow Flash on its popular lines of iPod and iPad gadgets. But those nifty Apple trinkets do use flash memory, and Apple is one of the world's largest consumers of such chips. Irony, sweet irony.

I can only scratch the surface of the surprisingly rich tech lingo in one article, lest I bore you to tears. Did I leave out the one term that bewilders you more than all the rest? Let me know in the comments below, and maybe we can sort it out later on.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Google, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Google and VMware are Motley Fool Rule Breakers choices. Apple, Adobe Systems, and Amazon.com are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.