Considering the Cloud

| January 9, 2013

Cloud storage seems to be the way of the future in our increasingly mobile, tapped in world. Reasons for wanting cloud storage include: a way to back up the files on your computer in case it crashes, a way to access and work on files from multiple devices and have them sync, and a way to share files with colleagues or friends. Concerns about storing data in the cloud include: security issues (hacking, leaking), a distrust of company interests (how much should Google know about me, really?), and server crash worries. The New York Times, for instance, recently did an investigative report revealing the power required to cool centralized server centers, which also questions how safe they are. But despite the concerns, cloud storage has become an increasingly popular option for both businesses and individuals. And because my own computer is getting old, I’ve been wondering whether I should backup my own data on the cloud or stick with an external hard drive, and if I do pick the cloud, I’m curious about which service is best.

(photo credit: Ethan Pines of the New York Times)

So, which cloud service should I choose? The simple answer is that none of them are obviously best, mainly because each service seems to be better at something different. Some services focus more on backing up files, while others focus on synchronized access, others on file sharing. To make matters more complicated, certain services focus on different types of media: music, photos, documents, encrypted files. A third factor is cost: these services vary quite a lot in price. Based on a scouring of different cloud review roundups, here’s what I’ve discovered.

Digital Trends reviews the best 7 cloud services, which in their estimation include Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, Amazon Cloud Drive, iCloud, Box, and the seventh is Otixo, which is a megadrive allowing you to access your accounts with the aforementioned six. Amazon and iCloud are both best for music and not much else (though iCloud’s calendar sync is nifty, I think). Dropbox, Drive, and SkyDrive all allow you to share and collaborate files, but Google’s wants you to stay within the Google world and edit documents with their own docs program. They allow you to save the document in a variety of file extensions, but this is creates the complication of having multiples of the same file; once you download it to your computer, you have to remember to load it back up to save changes in the cloud. Dropbox can save files of any type, but you can’t edit them live. Because SkyDrive is Microsoft’s creation, you can edit your files live with the Microsoft Suite, giving it a possible advantage. Box is a cleanly designed integrated file system which supports collaboration and synching, but seems best for businesses rather than individuals. None of the above options is your answer if what you want is to backup your entire computer.

In an effort to navigate the overlapping features of the above options, PC World breaks the cloud service decision down by user need, rather than by cloud provider. They note the difference between synching your local folders to a cloud and actually placing your folders in a cloud folder. They offer handy tips, such as how to save all email attachments in a cloud, or how to retrieve previously saved versions in a cloud, or how to share a photo and which service to use for this, versus how to store and share music files. Some of these tips are so specific and minute it can make your head spin, reading it. I have to admit I started wondering: shouldn’t all digital software make my life easier? Isn’t that its purpose? Will I need to hire a personal assistant to manage my various cloud services?

"Hi Siri, can you keep track of all my cloud services? Thanks."

Well. It’s also possible to abandon your beloved personalized computer entirely and buy Google’s $249 Chromebook computer that contains no storage at all, just access to google’s suite of cloud computing softwares. Suddenly a computer is nothing more than a gateway to a life stored online.

(image from Googlebook's website)

For now, for most of us, this option won’t work, but it’s interesting to consider what a life stored only in the cloud could look like. To me it seems antithetical to the point of digital connectivity to buy a computer that limits, rather than expands, my freedom of choice. But let’s imagine a different product, a computer that stores nothing but acts only as a conductor to not one but a variety of internet-stored cloud systems holding my various personal files. Cloud-based Adobe Suite? Cloud-based iMovie? Cloud-based art collaboration? Cloud communities? What would that world look like? Would we want this?