Thursday, July 29, 2010


A technology review

You'd think that after a decade of swapping cassette tapes, followed by a decade of swapping 5.25-inch floppy disks, then a decade of swapping 3.5-inch floppy disks, we wouldn't still be swapping files around on CDs and USB sticks, which are really just further predictable advancements in portable storage. The problems with ALL of these messages are several:

1. They can be lost, damaged, or destroyed. This is the least common problem, but it's the most devastating when it occurs.
2. They're almost never the "gold copy" of a file, mostly because of the item above - you don't want your primary, current version of important files to be stored somewhere that's fragile and easily misplaced. They end up just being temporary places to stick a file while you move it around. This results in having multiple versions of your files on different computers and on your portable storage. Once that happens, you may find yourself not transferring files around (or doing something different, like emailing them) because you've lost track of where the most current version is. Worse, you could end up with multiple copies of a file or document, each containing unique changes. Then it becomes a MAJOR hassle to reconcile them and get back to a single, master file that has everything you want and only what you want in it.

Luckily, the web gives us a solution, through the "Cloud." The Cloud has become the term for Internet-based storage and computing - anytime you're getting your operating power or disk space from a hosted server in some far-away datacenter. When you're using Google Apps for your word-processor or spreadsheet software, instead of a copy of Microsoft Office installed directly on your computer, you're in the Cloud.

The Cloud (yeah, heck, I think I'll just keep capitalizing it. No particular reason why. Just cuz I can.) is extremely useful. For one thing, datacenters are somebody else's problem. You don't have to maintain the computers, back them up, fix them when they crash, upgrade them, or even find a place to put them. Somebody else takes care of all of that - and pays to keep them cool, power them, keep redundant units on standby for uninterrupted availability, and so forth. All you have to do is tap into them with your computer, using either a web browser or sometimes a little "client app" that loads on your device and acts as the go-between to make what's in the Cloud available to you anytime, anywhere. Anywhere, that is, that lets you connect to the Internet.

And that's the major rub - you can only access the Cloud when you're connected to the Internet. For most people, most of the time, that's not a big deal, but it does mean that if you take your laptop for a weekend at the lake or out in the wilderness - anywhere that's lacking Internet connectivity - you may find that you can't get to what you need.

As a writer, managing documents and backups is definitely a problem for me, and the Cloud is a very real solution. For the last few weeks, I've been using the free version of Dropbox.

[Note: that link takes you to my personal Dropbox "share" page. Every time a friend of mine (or even an anonymous internet stranger who happens to read my blog) signs up for a new account using that link, BOTH of us get an extra 250 MB of free storage, up to 8 GB. This won't matter a whole lot when/if I (or you) sign up for the paid service, but if you don't ever plan to (or don't plan to right away), you can quadruple the size of your free storage box from 2 GB to 8 GB just by having your friends sign up. So do us a favor - go sign up for Dropbox using my link. If you didn't think you'd use it, you might be surprised and find out it's actually a nifty, useful thing. And either way, you'll be helping out a simple web blogger, which is always nice. And even if you do sign up for the paid service, 58 GB is almost 10% nicer than 50 GB, so it's still worth the utterly non-existent effort of following my link rather than going and typing manually. In fact, I'm saving you time. You're welcome, now click the link!]

Dropbox solves both the issue of how to transport and keep your files up to date AND the issue of how to get value from the Cloud even when you're offline. You see, Dropbox doesn't JUST keep your files in the Cloud. You might even say that that's the least of what it does. What it really does well is to use the power of the Cloud to synchronize your files across multiple devices and keep them synchronized ANYTIME the device touches the Internet.

So, in the above "weekend at the lake" scenario, as long as I connect to the Internet before I leave for the lake, my laptop is sure to have the most current version of all of my files (well, all the ones that I've put into my Dropbox, anyway). While I'm AT the lake, I can poke away at those files and make whatever changes I want to make. Those changes won't be on any of my other computers (yet), because I'm disconnected from the Internet, but who cares? I'm not using any of those other computers - I'm at the friggin lake! As soon as I get back to civilization, I just connect my laptop to the web and voila', my files are again synched up to the Cloud, and will then sync to my other computers as soon as they're turned on and connected to the net as well.

Dropbox does this through the use of a little client application - which is part of what makes it different from other "Cloud-storage" tools. This app creates a new folder called "My Dropbox" wherever you want to put it. I usually put mine inside my "My Documents" folder, but you can put it anywhere you like. The client app checks to see whether you're connected to the web, and, if you are, it checks to see whether the documents in the "My Dropbox" folder match the documents over in your little storage space on If they don't match, then it checks to see what's more recent and synchronizes in the correct direction. As another nice feature, it actually keeps a detailed log of what you've added, deleted, or modified so you can check and see what's happened when.

One of dropbox's features is something I consider to be a side-benefit. You actually CAN, if you want, access your files by logging into your account on and then browsing through your files in your web browser. As long as the computer you're using has the necessary software to open the files, they'll open right up. The only catch is that you are actually downloading them to the computer you're using at the time, and editing them there, which means
a) a local copy has been saved on that PC. If it's sensitive or confidential and you're on a public-use computer, you may be exposing yourself to risk of unintended access and
b) less cloak-and-dagger and more practical, you have to manually put the file(s) back into your brower-based dropbox by uploading them. Which is a lot less simple than when you've got your little Dropbox client application running, but it's better than not being able to access them at all.

For example, let's say you're traveling on business and you need to give an important presentation to executives or to a client. Your laptop craps out - maybe it stops working, maybe it's lost or stolen, doesn't matter - you don't have the use of it. With Dropbox, you could borrow anyone's laptop, log into your online dropbox, and pull down the necessary files to do your job.

One last feature that means nothing to me but would have a ton of value for many people is that Dropbox has a mobile application suitable for everything from smartphones to the iPad. If I understand how it works (and I admit I'm a little fuzzy on the details), the app gives you access to your files so you can at least view them and, I suppose, potentially even edit them if your device has the capability.Obviously this isn't a feature I've studied in a lot of depth or tried to use at all, since I have no suitable mobile devices.

Regardless, I'm just thrilled with Dropbox. The free version (which, again, starts at 2 GB and can be as big as 8 GB if you get friends to try it, too) offers plenty of space for basic document management and solves both the issues of syncing between machines plus backing up your critical files. If you want more space, it's only $10 a month for 50 GB or $20 a month for 100 GB. Which actually surprised me - usually they give you a deal if you go for the full shot, since doubling the space doesn't usually cost the service provider twice as much to operate. But anyway, it's still not a huge expense for that much space that's available wherever, whenever you want it. A little research shows that people are using it to backup and synchronize everything from their MP3 collections to their saved computer games, in addition to key files.

Once you're up and running on Dropbox, note that Lifehacker has a couple of interesting articles about getting more out of the service:

Use Dropbox for More Than Just File Syncing
The Cleverest Ways to Use Dropbox That You're Not Using

What do you have that you'd like to always have access to and want to be sure is safely backed up?

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