andEs Corner: my view from The Cloud

The cloud has finally arrived. And I am floating on it. But what does this cloud business all mean? Well, of course I can only give a personal view but I have to say it brings LOTS with it. Especially for people who have multiple PCs or do not have their own backup facilities or their own security team to manage their link to the internet. Maybe, I should give first my definition of the cloud: it means to me working from any device and being able to access data or services on the web seamlessly. All of it. And this of course means independent of operating system and (maybe) browser type.

I have already explained how I am using plaxo.com for my contacts and google calendar for synchronising between outlook and two instances of Thunderbird. A trusty service that I don’t use as much as I did is also zyb.com to synchronise your mobile phone via syncML interface. I probably use this less simply due to plaxo being so damned good.

The next area is document or file management. Here I am having a private battle between ease of use and my lifestyle. Initially I was starting to use zoho.com writer, sheet and notebook (similar to google applications) as replacements for the open office local versions. I am still doing this but it is more as a publishing tool for non-blog topics. Ultimately, most (99%) of the documents I write I want others to read and zoho is the perfect place for this. But over the past couple of months I have also started using dropbox… Dropbox is basically a virtual drive – i.e. online storage. I became first aware of the online storage boom when I saw Amazon S3 but then more interested when I looked at zumodrive.com but also getdropbox.com (which I ended up using as it supports Linux – I know they do not have EXACTLY the same use case but until zumodrive has Linux support I will stick with dropbox). The idea here is that you mount a drive just like you would an external hard-drive but its basically remote on some server I guess in California and can access it again from any device. My experiences so far with dropbox are excellent. I am syncing now between my windows XP NTFS drive and both Ubuntu and OpenSuse Linux ext3 file-system. At the moment dropbox will always cache all files locally (this was the cool thing about zumodrive where I could decide which to cache (handy on my eeepc with 4GB SSD) – but never mind – it is actually surprising how little space the docs you really need to sync take up. And incase I would ever happen to be without any of my PCs I can access them via a login protected web page. Dropbox has 2GB for free which so far is enough at least – if the prices went down exponentially for extra storage I would consider putting all my mp3s online too – but this would only make sense with cache-on/off functionality. And maybe lastFM (see below) makes this unnecessary… My zoho account remains invaluable but there are two problems holding it back – at least for me to use regularly: 1. I have actually found that I do most of my “content production” i.e. writing when I am offline (in the underground or plane (like now). There is an offline google gears implementation but I want this to work automatically and not have to remember to click “take offline”. i.e. I want a permanent offline cache on each PC I use it on which updates like dropbox whenever I am connected to the net. 2. The layout of zoho really is not thought out for tiny 7″ screens like my eeepc has, which is where I write 90% of my content.

I have also found that apart from a few special cases I have stopped using bookmarks and now use delicious. It also pushes this job out into the cloud and removes the need for me to keep syncing bookmarks which was a complete pain in the arse! Infact manual bookmark syncing was even worse than contacts & calendar. Another handy service I use (especially for my eeepc habit) is the readItLater plugin with its sync (needs a readItLater account to make this work – but worth the registration) and take-offline functionality: basically once setup I can mark a page from any PC (with a simple mouseclick in a tick box) and then have it cached to read when on the bus/underground/plane (and for those with an iPhone without flat rate data there’s an iPhone version to save u cash).

Gmail won the email war for me. It just works (well usually!) and I like most of it. Only thing I still hate is its unusable mail threading display – for me it is ok now (as I finally understood how to use it) but for anybody new to gmail it is just darn confusing to minimise the thread by default and display in the reverse order – this is the only usability issue I can think of in the whole of the google stuff I have used.

I am still playing with picasa but just don’t seem to have the time to sort through my fotos and classify as VERY private, private and for anybody to see. Also, there is not unlimited disk space. So here I am not totally on the cloud. For some reason I just don’t want to put all my fotos in facebook (call me old fashioned but I still don’t like the fb closed garden approach).

Lastfm is telling me now on a regular basis which my favourite tracks are and recommending which concerts to go to. I have finally used the “radio lastFM” type functionality which is fantastic for hearing new tracks similar to ones my Amarok fed into lastFM. So far the selection from lastFM has been excellent finding out about lots of new bands. So maybe one day I will live without my own mp3 collection…

But is it all perfect? Not quite I think. I see two things that need to be improved which maybe have the same solution:

1. Portal: It’s fine from all the PCs which I have configured myself with various firefox addons. But when I am in some airport lounge using their PC or an internet cafe then I would ideally like to login to the cloud and have everything as I would at home. This would also remove one of the hurdles I have now which is tracking which addons I have where. I guess this would be similar to the noble but pointless service the Siemens IT team tried with their windows profile centralisation. It was pointless as 99.999% of the time you logged in from the same PC. But in this cloudy world it would actually start to make a sense. Does this mean the SBS were actually innovators… 😉 Another effect of this is how long it takes to setup a new PC. If you take my eeepc as an example of the problem: it took me almost as long to configure all my “cloud stuff” as it did to setup my local applications.

I guess iGoogle is close to what I want except from what I can see it is only working for google products.

Although I MAY be wrong here. i.e. I want the ultimate mashup “home page” or to use an old term “portal” combining my docs from zoho and dropbox, address book from plaxo, search box for my bookmarks in delicious and calendar from google. And of course this is just my example. Like I said I CAN access all of my info without my own PC but have to go to each page separately.

2. Application mashup: I guess this is taking the first point a step further: to explain what I mean: it would be great to open a document in my dropbox with zoho writer and via gmail send to a contact in my plaxo address book. Maybe to do this zoho would have to buy dropbox (or vice versa) so that at least these two products were combined. In the end I would then enter the firefox application settings tab and enter gmail.com for email, plaxo.com for contacts, zoho,com for .doc, .xls, …, lastFM for .mp3, etc. Now THAT would be cool. And it isn’t technically THAT hard to do… I guess company politics is the harder obstacle… and the solution to this will be described in my next New World article where I describe the next boom.

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