Google Drive, Apple iCloud, Dropbox, Microsoft SkyDrive: Where There’s Clouds, There’s Thunder

Wow, what a thunderstorm this week, eh?

We heard it approaching on the horizon for a while, but I don’t think any of us expected anything like that!

What? Oh, no, I’m not talking about the weather.

I’m talking about those clouds on the internet.

You know, services like Apple iCloud, Dropbox, and Microsoft’s SkyDrive. And I’m especially referring to the new one that caused this week’s huge storm, Google Drive.

“Clouds” are basically places up there in the internet where you can put all your digital stuff. Think of them as online hard drives.

I’m not going to give you the run-down on the various clouds’ features, or even try to assess which might be best. I’ll refer you to, “Google Drive vs. Dropbox, SkyDrive, SugarSync, and others: a cloud sync storage face-off“, on The Verge for that.

Instead, I’m going to provide a primer on what these clouds are for, why you might want to use one, and what you need to be careful of.

So, like I said, clouds are really just places to store and synchronize (or “sync”) the stuff that’s currently on your computer with a place on the internet.

Stuff like your word processing documents, pictures, videos, and music can all be stored online.

Why would you want to do this?

The biggest reason is probably backup. Syncing stuff from your computer to the cloud is a quick and easy way to protect your data.

So if your computer is damaged or goes missing, getting all your stuff back is as easy as syncing with the cloud.

Another common reason is collaboration. If you often work on documents with other people, storing those documents in the cloud is easier and quicker than emailing them back and forth.

Even better, some cloud services automatically create and manage versions of documents, which makes backtracking on changes refreshingly easy.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to use a cloud service, though, is access to your stuff.

Once you sync with the cloud, you can pretty much get at your files anywhere with any device.

This is tremendously helpful if you spend a lot of time travelling, or even just work at home sometimes. You don’t have to think about which device you’ve stored your files on, because you have constant access to them all.

The cloud’s silver lining is somewhat tarnished in spots, of course. There are some pretty obvious risks, like security, ownership, and legal jurisdiction.

In terms of ownership, all of the major cloud services stress that your stuff is still yours, even though they’re storing it. But they do claim certain uses of it. Google, for example, makes it clear that they’ll probably analyze your files to improve the quality of the ads they serve you and your friends. And Apple promises to delete anything they find “objectionable”, whatever that means.

Then there’s the question of just where your files are geopolitically located, and what laws might apply to them as a result. If they’re in the US (which is likely), you may be subject to laws like the Patriot Act, for example.

Regarding security, you can pretty much count on most cloud service providers having top-notch, well-protected infrastructures. There are chinks in their armour, of course, and it may begrudge you to learn that the biggest of them is you.

Once it’s in the cloud, your stuff is really only as secure as the strength of your password and how well you guard it. And, statistically speaking, your password is probably neither very strong nor very protected. So you might want to work on that a bit.

There’s also a financial risk that’s especially acute for us northern Canadian internet users: bandwidth. All those files moving back and forth between the cloud and your computers can use a lot of bandwidth, and bandwidth can quickly translate into big-dollar penalties if you go over your Northwestel limits.

In a way, the cloud is a question first and foremost of trust: do you trust storing your precious files on some server somewhere in the world?

While I bet most readers would answer “no” to that question, it’s really not going to be your decision to make much longer.

The era of the “PC” — be it a laptop or a desktop computer — is quickly drawing to a close. We’re currently transitioning to a new period of truly mobile devices like smartphones and iPads.

It makes no sense to store all of our files on these things. In fact, it’s technically not possible. Like it or lump it, your stuff is headed for the cloud.

The only option you have left, then, is which cloud you’ll use. Even that may be predetermined, however.

If you tend towards using Google’s services, it’ll be tough to avoid Drive. Microsoft is literally ramming SkyDrive down its customers’ throats. And iCloud is almost inescapable if you have any Apple product.

Just be sure to keep two important things in mind as you’re herded onto the cloud: protect your password with your life and watch your bandwidth like a hawk.

This week’s thunderstorm was really the sound of the gauntlet being thrown down on a key battleground of computing’s future. Google desperately wants to own the cloud. But it has some fierce competition in rivals like Microsoft, Apple and Dropbox.

A real thunderstorm’s power can can clear the air and redefine landscapes. This internet one is no different. Once these clouds have finished bouncing off of one another and the air around them has settled, the world of technology should be quite different.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 27, 2012.