The Clouds Are Gathering

June 2011

Dropbox couldn't be simpler to use. No wonder it's so popular. I followed the easy steps to download and install the software, and immediately had the wonderful convenience of the cloud.

Dropbox put a folder on my computer, and when I created this very document that I'm writing, I saved it to the Dropbox folder. And voila, it's in the cloud.

What's the advantage of that? If my hard drive crashes, this column is still out there in the cloud — on Dropbox's servers someplace in the U.S. Or if I'm traveling and want to access this file, there it is in the cloud — I can access it via any computer. I can also access it via my iPhone.

Now suppose I'm out and about, and get a great idea to put into this column. I can turn on my iPad, open the file, and add some text. Here's the cool part: the new version of the file automatically gets synced not only to the cloud, but also to my desktop computer. So when I sit down at my computer to continue work on writing this column, the new version is already there.

And there's more. Recently a friend had some videos of an event that he wanted to share. Since they took up about 3GB of space, there was no way he could email them. Then he realized he could simply put them in his public folder on Dropbox and share them that way. I got an alert that he had shared some files, and within minutes I had the videos on my computer.

Dropbox gives you 2GB of free storage, and if you want more, it costs $10 per month for 50GB or $20 per month for 100GB. SugarSync and iDrive are similar, and offer 5GB for free. All three have the important feature of continuously uploading your changes as you make them.

In a sense, the cloud makes your files omnipresent and immortal. They go from being something local to your computer, to being in the ether — conveniently available to you wherever you are, always the latest version, and easily shared if you should choose to do so.

And there's more. Dropbox is just one of four types of cloud computing that you'll be using. To enumerate:

1) file-based services such as Dropbox, 2) PIM data (personal information management), 3) media streaming, and 4) online applications.

PIM data refers to stuff like your calendar and contacts. I also have this in the cloud via Apple's MobileMe service. If I add a contact on my computer, it automatically appears on my iPhone. The new contact is synced to MobileMe, which then automatically syncs it over-the-air to my iPhone. Or if I enter an appointment in my calendar on my iPhone, it automatically appears in my calendar on my computer.

You can expect these PIM data services to become ubiquitous.

Next is media streaming. As I write this in early May, cloud-based streaming has been getting a lot of buzz because Amazon just launched their free Amazon Cloud Drive and Amazon Cloud Player.

If you have a free Amazon account, you get 5GB of free storage on Amazon Cloud Drive. It doesn't have the elegant syncing capability of Dropbox, and isn't as simple to use. But it's free.

And there's more: if you use Cloud Drive to store your music, you can use Amazon Cloud Player to stream that music. Your music collection is no longer tied to computer: you can access it from any computer or any device. Plus, if you buy a single mp3 album from Amazon, they automatically bump up your free storage limit to 20GB for a year.

Apple and Google are currently racing to offer similar streaming media and storage services, and Apple's service, probably called iCloud, is expected to be announced any day. It will be MobileMe on steroids. All your PIM data, all your music and video files, and anything else you want will reside in the cloud.

And finally, cloud computing can also entail having your software online. The free Google Docs is a clear leader in this arena, offering a suite that includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentations, drawing, and forms.

Microsoft's cloud presence is also application-based, with their new service called Office 365 to be offered later this year. It will be mainly for businesses, and their pricing will start at $6 per individual per month.

Bottom line: if you aren't already using Dropbox, sign up today. And look forward to more clouds in your computing future.

This month's hot tips:

Crackle offers free streaming movies and TV, both for you desktop computer and for your mobile device. Find free Internet tutorials on Guide to Computer Training.

© 2011 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen