Storage Wars: Cloud Edition
Cloud computing, the concept, was minted in November 1996—not in a groovy Los Altos garage or a feverish Harvard dorm room, but in one of those Platonic non-places: an office park in an exurb of Houston.
In Web 1.0 days, a small group of Compaq executives in Texas slipped the phrase into a yawner document (“Internet Solutions Divisions Strategy for Cloud Computing”) which predicted, brilliantly, that consumers would one day save data to offsite storage centers maintained by third parties.
And indeed we do now cheaply shove our digital steamer trunks into anonymous data centers romantically known as the cloud. Impetuously. Wantonly. And almost entirely without a plan.
Cloud storage is a tantalizing notion—evoking both immortality and infinite capacity—but it’s chaotic in practice. Only recently has one company emerged as the frontrunner in consumer cloud services.
What’s more, data itself has changed. In the mid-1990s consumers were storing “files”—mostly text. Seventeen years later, every Joe Instagram and Sally Smartphone commands a private multimedia empire: yottabytes of photographs, videos and music that requires storage that’s capacious, organized, inexpensive, accessible and secure.
In the last decade, you probably picked up Yahoo Mail or Gmail or another webmail service with generous and cheap cloud storage. Now you find yourself using stored email as a personal Library of Congress, emailing passwords to yourself or searching your archive for names, addresses and itineraries.
Then, depending on whether you swing Google or Microsoft Office, you lost the fight against Google Drive or SkyDrive as a place to cloud-park and share docs and spreadsheets. Your contacts and other iPhone scraps, perhaps, went to iCloud.
For collaborations, someone’s always proposing Dropbox to share music, photos and film. A few outliers use Otixo or Box, in defiance of the tech giants. These lesser cloud services are too obscure to be first choices. After Facebook, which has extremely limited cloud features, these are the worst options: data stored in them is not shareable enough.
These storage half-solutions contribute to a feeling of unease: it’s as if we had 17 open checking accounts in farflung banks with no FDIC. In this muddle, there’s good-bad news: a method has appeared to our storage madness—or rather a familiar monopolizer has guided cloud storage since its juggernaut webmail service appeared in 2004. As with search, the most popular storage service is the best. Its ubiquity makes it both accessible and shareable. Its name is—wait for it—Google.
“The best option is to use the same cloud storage that most of your friends are using.” It’s that simple, and not especially insidery, though the verdict comes from Dave Asprey, a cloud computing and security expert at Trend Micro.
“Storing your stuff is important, but so is sharing the files you want to share. There is nothing more annoying than having to maintain six different logins for six different clouds.” Another goal, he said, is to use cloud storage “from the same company that hosts your e-mail.”
Yup. And with 450 million active users now using Gmail, all signs point to Google—even as it’s hard to acknowledge that slight-queasy-making inevitability.
I’ve got stuff everywhere and it’s still really confusing,” admitted Hunter Walk, who runs Homebrew, a San Francisco venture-capital firm. He put this bitterly, and may have used a coarser word than “stuff.” In the past, he’s used Picasa (for pics) and Evernote (for multimedia). These days, though, he’s come to accept that Google, where he once worked, works best.
Combine the ubiquity of Gmail users with the company’s creativity in layering consumer applications on top of Web data—apps that add access, collaboration and utility to stored data and archives—and it has a big head start with consumers. Google has even acquired music startups toward sealing its place for all-data store-all.
Steeped in the twin philosophies of collaboration and anti-ownership, many millennials started using Gmail as teenagers. And in spite of Microsoft’s efforts to sweeten SkyDrive deals for students, Google storage wins the category by having services beloved of youth including mail, calendars and social media like Gchat and Google+. (Without calendars or mail, Facebook is far behind. Of all cloud-storage options, it’s the laziest—and the worst.)
At the same time, Google allows the sharing of screenshots, which can be cleverly done through Google+. “Many of us are discovering you can almost use G+ or Drive as an FTP” (File Transfer Protocol), explained Brianna Snyder, a 28-year-old magazine editor in Albany, NY, in an email.
Snyder stores “her” music on Spotify, a notion that could confound older Web users for whom “storing your music on Spotify” sounds as weird as “storing your books at the library.”
Amazon Cloud and iCloud, which have limited use for storing documents and spreadsheets, work well enough for music. But any kind of MP3 storage now looks almost as archaic as wooden built-ins for CDs.
So it’s Google, far and away, for individual consumer cloud storage: for accessibility, shareability and capacity, it blows the other options away.
But then there’s a level of collaboration that’s more than sharing photos with grandparents. This is book-writing, music-producing, house-building. For that, Dropbox is the answer. On its merits, Dropbox could compete Google, but it right now lacks a link to mobile and mail. (Could Apple catch up in cloud services if it offered Dropbox some crazy price —$10 billion?—to close the deal?)
Dropbox has lovely organizing features, and it’s collaboration-friendly in the extreme. No one should plan a movie—or a wedding, or a family reunion—without it.
But what about security? For most people, without much to hide, security comes not from dodging the NSA but in knowing that your data won’t be lost at the next hard drive fail.
Which is, if you think about it, the most monomaniacal part of the cloud fantasy: eternal life—in the firmament, no less—for our every passing thought, photo, video, spreadsheet and email, no matter how vain, embarrassing or trivial. Heaven help us.