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BW Businessworld

Cloud Vs Cloud

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The days when computer users had to obsess over the quantum of storage are gone. Today, a terabyte or two isn't even in question and it isn't enough in any case. Users now have a multitude of devices, and a new need to access practically all their documents, photographs, music, movies and other odds and ends on all their gadgets. Start-ups, followed by the tech giants, figured out that offering online storage was not only part of keeping up with the trend of moving to the cloud, but that it was a good way to tie them in to new services. And, as is inevitable, there began a battle royale for supremacy in storage, cloud style.

Send To Dropbox
It would seem logical that traditional storage companies that have been making hard drives and flash drives should head to cloud services. But that didn't happen. Instead, a start-up called Dropbox dropped in out of nowhere and easy personal storage was born. It was wildly popular as it offered 2GB free storage to anyone who signed up for a free account. Today's storage-gobblers would make a quick meal of that, of course, but more storage can be had by inviting others to sign up, and bullying them into downloading Dropbox. Users can get up to 18GB. On top of that, various mobile devices, like some of HTC's smartphones, lead straight to Dropbox for 25GB of additional storage.

Beyond that, you can get 100, 200 or 500GB for a fee. For businesses, there is a separate set of space and pricing schemes. Every platform — web browser, PC app, Android, BlackBerry or iOS — has Dropbox apps. And other apps support it. It's really with Dropbox that users got their first taste of the cloud. What works for it is the sheer ease of use. Just drop a file into the Dropbox folder and access it anywhere — about 50 million multi-gadget users rely on it. Now tech companies are waking up and getting deadly serious about their cloud services.

A SkyDrive For All
Microsoft's cloud sync and storage offering, SkyDrive, has been around a long time. But it hasn't been a critical part of everyday use of Windows and Office. The release of Windows 8 and Office 2013 previews, however, changes everything. One: moving from being tethered to the PC to other devices, specifically tablets and phones. Two: a shift from keyboard to touch; Microsoft's new environments are "Touch First". Three: availability of services and data everywhere.

Where once MS Office was tied irrevocably to a specific machine, it's now to be tied to the user; the data must be accessible from every device possible — even those made by competitors such as Apple. By default, Office 2013 files will save to the cloud, though you can change that. Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote will save files to the cloud and allow sharing. SkyDrive has now become an essential part of Windows phones, but the full-fledged programmes offer more than the online tools.

SkyDrive's advantages over, say, a Dropbox, are obvious. Here, files can be created and edited, and not just stored. Individual users can start off with 7GB free. Later, when pricing for Windows 8 and new versions of Office are frozen, individual users will pay for additional space. Many users may at first resist Micrososft's shift — from software-in-a-box to software-as-a-service. But the convenience of getting data across devices will likely be too good to ignore.

Your Files, Gone Google 
What of Google? Google has always been about cloud in one way or the other. Google Docs, for instance, has always been a way to share files. But it's not easy to use. Nor has it been a favourite for backing up files and was, in any case, separate from Picasa for photos. 

But in April this year, after a wait of 5-6 years, Google launched Google Drive, integrating Google Docs into Google Drive, and then Drive into its Chrome OS. Google is tying its different offerings into cloud services as it pushes its Android-based tablets and smartphones. Google Drive for OS arrived quickly enough. Drive doesn't, however, stream your content.

Sync, Save, Store, Share
Apple, along with its lower-than-expectations Q3 earnings, announced that it has 150 million iCloud users. This, it says, will only increase with the launch of iOS 6 for mobile devices. Apple relates absolutely everything to iCloud: contacts, calendar, music, photos, documents and apps. Many apps also save straight to iCloud. So you can pick up on a MacBook where you left off on an iPad. But iCloud is only for Apple products, and doesn't talk to other services as easily.

The companies that super-control our devices will want to tie users to their own cloud services. But users can always go for a combination of services — free or paid space, what data to put where (say, music versus work documents).
 
There are various alternative cloud services as well. SugarSync is on several platforms and lets you password-protect files and folders. Insync syncs with Google Drive; LiveDrive allows automatic backup, albeit at a price. Box, which got a new round of funding this week, focuses on file sharing, caters to both enterprise and personal users, and offers free 5GB to start with.

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Worrisome Clouds
While cloud services battle it out for users' mind space, and maybe a share of their wallets, enterprises, unsurprisingly, will want control over where their data goes. Their biggest worry: security, and rightly so. But so it is for users who store personal data. Recently, Dropbox users found that they could log into others' accounts with any password. While Dropbox's responsiveness was exemplary, the vulnerability is evident.

With recent cases of massive security breaches it is obvious that even large companies are accessible targets for malware-makers and scamsters.

Privacy is no less a concern. We know that Microsoft is monitoring (at least by an automated method) users' files on SkyDrive. The extent of the access and how it will be used are things we don't know. Technology's big names have not been beyond finding innovative ways to use personal information for profit.

Just as worrisome is the possibility of total loss of data. Microsoft suspended some SkyDrive users' accounts for apparent violation of guidelines on what could be uploaded. This led not only to loss of data but also loss of services connected with the users' Windows Live ID.

All companies have to walk the tightrope between keeping users' files safe and private and yet disallowing clearly illegal activities. And that cannot be done without some compromises.

With the launch of Google Drive, there was an immediate backlash of worry over how Google will use personal data. But users soon realised that it is the same with every service. 

Another worry, specifically in India, is that  users need predictable and ample bandwidth. They need to get what they pay for to ensure that their ‘sizeable' files are always at hand. But that is neither promised nor guaranteed and combined with the absence of Wi-Fi zones, relying on the cloud will mean hit-or-miss scenarios.

malabhargava(at)bworldmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 06-08-2012)