Saturday, December 04, 2010

Cloudier and Cloudier

There's more than weather on the horizon ...

Here are some more examples of what I wrote about recently in Life in the Cloud -- and in a way, the fact that I forgot about them is the best evidence that we're already taking them for granted.

You've Got Mail

Yes, as AOL likes to tell us, we have mail, and most of it is spam. Over 80% of it, in fact, ranging from the annoying and disgusting to the viscious and destructive. In this environment it is unconscionable for any provider to give you an email address without some industrial strength spam filtering. Unfortunately some of the most commonly used services (that means YOU, Hotmail and Yahoo!) are less than stellar in this department.

What makes matters worse is that many of us are still stuck on using a local email client on our desktops. In this traditional model our computers suck down everything that comes through the pipe, then flag some of it as suspected spam. How well that works usually depends on how good a job we do of "training" the software, and even then we get lots of false positives along with things that make it to the inbox anyhow. Since some viruses and worms can spread this way even if you never act on them, the damage is not prevented.

When I started using Gmail my first concern was convenience plus a more pleasing user interface than what Bellsouth/AT&T provides for webmail (which is AWFUL). It was only after I used it for awhile that I began to notice something amazing: an almost total absence of spam! Though it's not highly publicized, Google is doing a better job at this valuable service than all but the best enterprise-class filtering systems. And they're mostly giving it away in the public interest. (Contrast this to the service used by the company I work for which costs about $33.00 per user each year.)

I still have a spam folder in Gmail, and I can look there to see if anything good has got caught in it. But that happened so seldom that I stopped checking long ago. I don't even have to empty the spam folder, because everything in it gets deleted automatically after 30 days. Spam? What spam?

You can use a local mail client with Gmail if you want to, but that's a step backward from the security of just looking at your mail while it lives on Google's servers. Of course, it still can't help you if you look in the spam folder and click on that Britney Spears link; but at least she has not automatically downloaded herself onto your hard drive first!

It's a classic example of a formerly desktop-based service being supplanted by a cloud-based one. It's safer, and offers the convenience of access to the same mail from any web browser on any Internet-capable device. This only makes sense, when you think about it. Email only exists online, and anything we have stored on our local machines is just a copy. Sometimes people express reservations about using a completely online service because it won't be available if they lose their internet connection. True, road warriors who are too far from a wifi connection may not be able to look for something in their mailbox. But now that you can check your mail anywhere from your phone, is that really a problem? And what good is email if you're not online?

In addition, Gmail gives me big file attachments -- up to 10 megabytes -- and storage space that keeps growing faster than I can use it up. For example, a few years ago it said on the bottom of my screen that I was using 200MB or 7% of my 3 gigabytes available. Now it says I'm using 600MB or 8% of my 7.5 gigabytes. At this rate I'll never have to delete an email for the rest of my life. (Though of course I usually delete those with huge attachments.) And when my computer crashes or gets stolen I won't lose anything.


In that previous installment I mentioned Dropbox, which is a great way to back up your critical files while also making them available wherever you are. (There's also Box.net and others that focus more on sharing files, including really big ones.) Google Docs is a different approach that encourages you not only to store your files online but also to create and edit them there, using software accessed exclusively through the web.

What's good about that? Well, suppose you're at the public library someday and you'd like to look at your budget spreadsheet. With Dropbox you could find the file or even download it, but without Excel or OpenOffice installed on the library computer you can't see what's in it, much less edit it. But upload it into Google Docs and all you need is the web browser -- even the one on your phone will do. Since your docs can be shared, you can also use it as a collaboration tool. Plus, with everyone using the same software on the website there are no version control problems. The light begins to dawn ...

Backups and Operating Systems

Dropbox is one way to back up your critical files, but it's not really designed for automated industrial scale backups. For that you can consider something like Crashplan, which offers moderately priced "unlimited" storage for personal use. But as our need for storage grows and our personal ability to manage and protect it remains limited, the whole model may be about to turn inside out.

A couple of years ago it was rumored that Google was about to launch a service called Gdrive which you would be able to use for all your storage needs. They seem to have backed off from the idea, perhaps because they didn't think the market was ready for it (or that they couldn't make money from it). But during the discussions online it leaked out that one promotional angle was that the online version of your data would be the "real" one while anything on your own computer would be just a local copy.

That may sound nuts at first glance, but when you consider that over time your computers will come and go but your data lives on (hopefully!) then it starts to make sense. Whatever is on your local drive now might only be needed for temporary computational performance reasons -- like editing a big spreadsheet or working with image files.

Gdrive may only have been postponed until it can be linked with Google's forthcoming Chrome operating system. Chrome is intended to move the OS online as well. Your computer will be able to install, load, and run completely from an online source, with the benefit of automated updates. Computer geeks may prefer to keep "rolling their own," but for the vast majority of cases where the computer primarily surfs the web and plays games, this will be all people need. And if that sounds limiting, consider that those online apps will keep growing in usefulness, and even online gaming will soon achieve locally-installed video performance levels.

The cloud is coming, and in the immortal words of the Borg, "resistance is futile."

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