Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cloud 9

I love my Cr-48 (the Google netbook I got to test out that has no conventional hard drive or local file storage). In case you aren't up on your hipster internet lingo, cloud computing means the storage or processing or whatever is distributed between servers and not done on your local machine. You store files on the web, not on the machine sitting in front of you.

Disclaimer first: this post is really boring and it won't hurt my feelings if you just come back when Boss is pontificating about menstruating pinatas or something more interesting. But in case you like the techno-geeky stuff, this post is for you.

Here are the main problems people seem to have with "the cloud":
  1. I won't have *control* over my own information!
  2. It won't be safe on their servers; I've seen in the news how they're hacked all the time!
  3. What if I'm not online? I can't do anything.

Let me respond to these:
  1. You have more control over files online where you can get to them from any computer than you do when they are only on your local machine--the one you always forget to make backups for and the one where Windows requires you to genuflect and kiss its ring before accessing a folder it doesn't trust you with.
  2. Servers controlled by companies like Google and Amazon are safer than most people's local machines. Granted, there are Internet-based companies that play fast and loose with personal information and the news is filled with a rotating stream of them being hacked. The places I store my data online are high quality (with the exception of a few banks that have sent me new credit cards because of online security breaches and that have nothing whatsoever to do with me deliberately storing my information in the cloud). If you take an objective look at the security level of your wifi network at your house, or your family members' surfing habits clicking on any shiny ad that could be malicious, I'd take my chances with the cloud any day!
  3. And not being online? It's no worse than being online and not having access to your files because you're not sitting right in front of the particular machine that stores them. I've tried to share files and folders and external hard drives over my local network. It's frustrating and unnecessary! Windows constantly tells me that I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing and then thwarts me when I try to do it anyway. It's like the argument about gun control laws only keeping guns away from honest people and not criminals--Windows security keeps me from using my own files the way I want but seems to have plenty of ways for the bad guys to get in. On balance, having your files in the cloud makes them much more accessible, not less accessible because you might not always be online.
I thought after getting the Cr-48 I might have to make quite a few changes to how I use my computer to adapt to a computer that is only on the web. But, it turns out, I've already been making the change to the cloud gradually over the last decade, I just didn't realize it in quite those terms until today. For example, here are some of the things I used to do on my local machine that now I do online nearly exclusively:
  1. Office software (i.e. word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations). I started using Google docs a while back for nearly everything and I find it works for 90% of what I need. Occasionally I need a few fancier features than what they have, and for that I have my trusty desktop and the cloud won't hack it. But, for the vast majority of what I do both at work and at home, the cloud is it. For those who like the pretty (albeit over-wrought and infuriating, imho) look of MS Office, there is a web based version of that software if you'd rather use it than Google docs. I'd say you're crazy and try to convince you otherwise, but I'll tone it down for 5 seconds. [Incidentally, I've been impressed with this web-based presentation software.]
  2. E-mail. I can hardly believe I ever did non-web-based e-mail, but I suppose it's true. I used to use a client installed on the local machine that downloaded my messages off the server on to the local machine where I could never read them again from any other web-connected computer. Craziness! Hotmail paved the way (then was assimilated by the Microsoft Borg) and Gmail raised the bar. It's all web all the time, now. Oddly, this is one place where cloud storage trumps local too. My work e-mail limits me to less than 80 megs of storage. Compare that to the 8 gigs in Gmail. Weird.
  3. Documents and records. I can keep scanned documents in the cloud like my kids' birth certificates (bring those up at the airport and save the printouts), my diplomas, etc. I've been looking for my tax return from last year and I can't find it on any of my hard drives or computers around here. I wish I had put it in the cloud for easy access from anywhere, but I just dropped $15 last night trying to download a new copy of last years' return from taxact and it turns out they don't even have the pdf I need! For storage that synchronizes across all your computers and is accessible from the web too, I like Dropbox. I still use google docs to store most things, though, because you can upload videos, pdfs, and other kinds of files besides just office documents.
  4. Tax preparation. Speaking of storing tax records, how about doing the taxes in the first place? I used to buy Turbotax, but for the last several years I've used Freefile online and you get the exact same benefits without purchasing the software. This year for the first time ever, my online preparation was free as well as both the federal and state filing with H&R Block (as long as you access their site through the freefile page and live in a state that has free filing). I can't convince my parents to save their money by doing it this way, but I do think the cloud is the best.
  5. Money management. I used Microsoft Money software for years, and then realized that the jerks had actually built an expiration date (in effect) into the software that required me to buy more of their crappy software later to continue to use my data. Seriously! I couldn't access my own meticulously gathered financial records without paying Microsoft a perpetual upgrade fee? Now I use my bank sites with which keeps track of the big picture and budgeting better than MS Money ever did. So neener Microsoft!
  6. Books. I don't read on the computer all that often, but when I do, it's in the cloud (pdf's saved in my Dropbox account, textbooks with login-enabled e-versions, Amazon kindle fiction, Google Books, etc). That way your place is always saved and updated whether you were reading on your ipod or your laptop or switching back and forth or whatever.
  7. Music. Although I've got a huge music collection and I like to listen to it on my computer and ipod every once in a while, I use them much much less than I listen to Pandora or, which are fresher and give me access to lots of music I don't have to pay for, and which are available from any computer with Internet. Better. Definitely better.
  8. As for movies and TV, we're a big-time Netflix family. We dropped the cable TV bill more than a year ago and haven't missed it much at all. We have Netflix streaming setup through the xbox and our kids love it, we have control of what is coming in, knowledge of what actually got watched, and access to more movies and TV shows that we like than we had when we had TV. We also split some time with hulu and youtube on the computer, but Netflix rules at our house.
  9. Games. I'm admittedly more of a social gamer these days. I'm much more likely to use the arcade feature of the xbox than the full version discs. So, it works out pretty well that if I need a Plants vs. Zombies or Bejeweled fix sometime, they're available online for the computer, not necessitating a local install. Call of Duty? Not so much. But, for us, that's okay because I've got the xbox for that and I don't use the computer for that kind of gaming anyway. Who has the time?
  10. Photos and videos. Here's where I still have some adapting yet to do. I am convinced that storing my stuff in the cloud is a better way to go than locally where they get deleted or corrupted or lost or diluted to oblivion, but I haven't quite made the change yet. We do share a fair number of photos via facebook and flickr and picasa web albums, but this is a very small percentage of our total stash. There are online video editors (which I haven't used much) and photo editors like picnik (which I have used and I've been impressed with). Cloud still wins... although the space needed may argue for a compromise. I buy a new external hard drive every year, it seems, and if I spent that money for getting a lot more online storage in the cloud instead, It'd probably be a zero sum game. We'll see how this one plays out!
Anyway, this may be the most boring post ever, and Boss warned me. But I wanted to at least make a case for cloud based computing. It's new and seems odd to many, but I do think it's a better way to go for many many reasons. Making the transition for us has happened without even realizing it, for the most part. Shortly after we were married we decided not to buy any more books or CDs or DVDs, opting instead for using the library and rentals (with reasonable exceptions, of course). That was sort of a conceptual leap into the cloud, if not literal cloud storage, I suppose. And so it's probably been easier for us over the years to make the computing switch to the cloud. So, here we are a nerdy case example of living with our heads in the clouds, and the Cr-48 is now taking it to the next level.


Lizzy said...

I am oddly disappointed that there is not a blog entry on menstrating pinatas.

JennVan said...

Thanks for the update. I've been thinking about getting one of those myself. I've been slowly transitioning to all online as well so I think the change will go well. Its good to see your experience.

Coach said...

@ Lizzy. Me too, me too. Perhaps soon, I'll ask if she can work something up. :-)

@ JennVan. Thanks for commenting! I'm glad you read my nerdy posts as probably very few people do. :-)

B said...

Thanks for posting all that info, coach...while "nerdy" it was great...I am decidedly tech-uninformed. While I have heard of most of the cloud computing methods(and have actually used some of them), I had never heard of the terminology. So thanks!