I’m sure many of you have heard a lot of rhetoric about the “cloud”. It is just another fancy term for how we use the Internet to backup data. There are a few reasons for the cloud. Mobile computing has eclipsed traditional computing, and tablet and smartphone usage has outpaced desktop, laptop and netbook usage. Laptops and netbooks weren’t true mobile computing devices; they were portable, but they didn’t utilize the operating systems that are common on mobile devices and they have the same amount of storage that desktop computers do. There are hybrids, such as the Microsoft Surface, which uses a modified desktop operating system to maintain continuity of work flow, that are more like a tablet in that they rely on a small amount of solid state memory, but for the most part mobile computing is a niche form of computing that has made its way into the mainstream.
Anyone that has used Google Drive, SkyDrive, or email has taken advantage of the cloud. Data is backed up automatically, and in the case of IMAP, file synchronization takes place through the idea that whatever email you can access on one machine is an exact duplication of the email you actually have. In an idea world, that is exactly how the cloud would work. But there are so many variables, and idiosyncrasies that occur with how each machine handles data, that most users would be wise to utilize not one, not two, but several cloud “solutions” to ensure that data that is spread out throughout a variety of servers.
One good example of how this works is what happened to me last week while I was on vacation. I have an Android smartphone, and Android is designed for users that love to live in the Google ecosystem. One of those products, Google Plus, is an alternative to Facebook; sort of like a mashup of what everyone loves about Facebook and Twitter, some of the people on there have Facebook and Twitter accounts, some don’t, a few only have Google Plus accounts. One of the advantages to Google Plus, is that it is accessible through Gmail, Google Music and pages that provide results to search queries performed off of the Google website. As long as you are logged into your primary Google account, you are automatically logged into Google Plus.
There is a Google Plus app for Android that will automatically upload pictures and video saved to your smartphone as you are taking them, if an Internet connection is available. Pictures are saved to a private album on Google Plus and Picasa Web Albums, and users can opt to share pictures with people whose information is stored through Google Contacts. If you opt to share your photo albums while you are using an actual personal computer (or if you are navigating the desktop version of the Google Plus site), you can actually type in the email address of the person you want to share the pictures with. On paper this sounds wonderful; I’m always connected to the Internet, and my videos will go onto a private, unlisted, digital locker on YouTube where no one can find them. Even if I log onto my own YouTube account, I can’t find these videos; but people can play the videos back on my Google Plus profile, using the link I have provided.
The implementation of automatic video and picture backup through the Google Plus app does not always work as planned. Google Plus takes its time with videos, and videos may not be available for several weeks. There are times when a user should just delete the videos in hopes that Google Plus will find them again. There are other times when it is just easier to download the videos to YouTube, set them all as private, and then share the videos the old fashioned way.
To make a long story short, I lost videos that were stuck in limbo, still being processed by Google, but never made available to the people I wanted to share the videos with. I erased my files to make space on my smartphone, and now pictures that should have been made available for my own personal viewing, I can’t find on Google Plus because I never shared the pictures with anyone else. I never thought to share them with a different email address because I assumed every picture I took would be shared with my Gmail address, but that isn’t necessarily the case.
Good thing I thought to use Ubuntu One Files to backup my pictures, in addition to Google Plus. The only problem with Ubuntu One Files, is that it only wants to synchronize pictures automatically, and it won’t synchronize anything else. You have to manually upload videos to Ubuntu One Files the old fashioned way. Unlike Google Plus, which provides 1 GB specifically for pictures over 2 MP in size and videos over 15 minutes in length and unlimited storage to smaller pictures and videos Ubuntu One provides 5 GB for everything. If you need more storage, just buy a song for 99 cents from Ubuntu Music, and you automatically recieve an additional 20 GB of storage for a total of 25 GB.
This sounds good on paper as well; all I have to do is remember to manually upload my videos, and each device I register with Ubuntu has its own folder. The only issue I have with Ubuntu One, is that their servers are slow, and their products are not as straightforward as they could be. So now I have files stored on two different clouds; one belonging to Ubuntu, and one belonging to Google. If I were using a PC, or a Microsoft Surface tablet, or perhaps even Windows Phone, I could have used SkyDrive. I’ve tried the SkyDrive app for Android, and it allows you to view files, but it doesn’t automatically upload files, and Google Drive is the same way.
At the end of the day, tablets and smartphones will automatically upload pictures, but there is no gaurantee they will automatically save any other types of files to the cloud. On the other hand, I can’t seem to find a cloud solution for the personal computer that does not want to synchronize my entire desktop in the cloud, and personal computers do not need file synchronization to the degree that mobile devices do because they have between 10 to 20 times as much storage. Personal computers either use WiFi or a broadband Internet connection, so they can push those files to the cloud faster, more reliably, with fewer issues than mobile devices do. Google Chromebook is a netbook specifically designed for the cloud; purchase a Chromebook and you not only get an “always on, always connected” personal computer, but you are also purchasing Internet service.
A cheap mobile device is a lot slower than a personal computer. A low end smartphone has a 600 MHz processor, and 256 MB of RAM. It could take an eternity to automatically backup your files, even if you do have a fast Internet connection, because your device cannot keep up with that connection. If you’re in the situation I was in where Internet access was unaffordable, at $20 a day, and you go a period of time without connecting to the Internet, and it takes several hours to backup your files once you do, some of your data is going to be lost, at some point in that process.
When it comes to the cloud everything needs to move quickly. If there is any weak link; a slow computing device, a slow Internet connection, an unreliable Internet connection with varying signal strength, large files that might take several minutes or hours to upload, data can be lost in the process. In the case of personal computers, software such as SkyDrive or Google Drive could be the weak link if the user does not have sufficient RAM to run software in the background. SkyDrive actually slows down my computer, as it has 1 GB, and SkyDrive prefers a computer with a 1.6 GHz processor. SkyDrive runs better on computers with 2 GB of RAM.
Another issue with the cloud is that it is difficult to ascertain how much storage a user actually has access to. Outside of Google Drive, Google is ambigious, at best, with respect to how many gigabytes a user actually has access to. You could have access to 5 GB, or several terabytes, depending on which Google product you are using; products like YouTube and Gmail give the impression that storage is infinite, and Google tends to hand out more storage through products they’re making huge amounts of revenue from, like YouTube, Gmail and Blogger. Google’s products are also interconnected, and it can be difficult to determine which product you’re actually using.
Microsoft is not any different from Google; there is no confusion when it comes to products like SkyDrive but they can’t tell you how much storage you have available through Outlook.com, until they feel that you are using too much storage and should start deleting items with attachments you have saved forever in your email. Most products that have been sold in the marketplace over the last five years have come with some form of cloud storage, but users are not always aware of all of the options that are made available to them. My netbook has cloud storage I have never used before.
A lot of consumers do not understand the product, and some do not quite understand what they’re paying for. Billing for cloud services renews automatically, unless the consumer terminates the agreement. Media can be purchased through the cloud piecemeal; 99 cents for a song off of iTunes or Google Play, or in an “all you can eat buffet style”, $7.99 a month for Netflix or Hulu Plus or $79 a year for Amazon Prime. In the case of Google Music’s integration with Google Play, the same service that serves as a digital locker for 20,000 songs will also sell you music, or replace music you’re uploading with their own music if the system determines that you’re uploading the same songs they’re selling. Cloud services “just work”, or “just fail”, and are often a maze of interdependent software ran off of different servers, synchronizing tablets and smartphones with PCs, laptops and netbooks; troubleshooting can be difficult until you realize that files you’ve lost from one machine have already been stored on one of your other devices.
The cloud is a wonderful implementation of file storage technology, but do consumers necessarily need to buy into these services? I’ve only paid $1.98 for my cloud so far; the first 99 cents I spent to gain 20 GB from Ubuntu expired after 6 months, and now I’m spending an additional 99 cents to get back to the same 25 GB I had back then. I wouldn’t invest in the cloud at this point, but chances are, you already have …