We live in an interconnected world. This interconnectivity has nearly made physical, portable computer storage obsolete. I can barely remember the 5 ½” floppy disks. I certainly remember 3 ½” floppy disks. Even up through my college years, if you wanted to take any type of file with you, you had to have some. I say “some” because the most those things would hold was 1.5 MB. That seems kind of ridiculous now, but that was the world I and most people over the age of 30 lived in. Then some folks for a short period tried to use CDs for portable storage. Yes, it worked, but the CDs weren’t reusable (unless you got the expensive disks and you had an expensive CD+RW drive) and it got to be cost-prohibitive really fast. The most recent iteration of portable storage is the USB stick – thumb drive, jump drive, whatever you wanted to call it. Those are still around, of course, but they’re not exactly flying off the shelves because more and more people are using cloud storage services.
With cloud storage, a provider allows you to store your files on their Internet-connected servers. The files are available whenever you need them through a Web portal, through a connected folder on your computer, or through a phone or tablet app. Very convenient, although there is the risk that files stored in a cloud service may be vulnerable to hackers and to government intrusion. If you keep that in mind, you probably won’t store your tax returns and other important electronic documents in the cloud. Beyond that though, storing casual photos and basic documents in the cloud is perfectly safe.
I’m going to list the services my wife and I use and describe the advantages and disadvantages of each, in my experience. Keep in mind these are all free services.
DropBox has been around for a long time, “long time” being relative, of course. It offers 2 GB of free storage. It’s very easy to use, and it’s the most flexible. You can store practically any kind of file and access it easily. DropBox is ideal for pictures, PDFs, and other files that work in multiple formats. My main issues with it have to do with the way I use cloud computing. I use cloud storage a lot through a web browser. The other services I use allow you to access and edit files directly through the browser. This isn’t possible with DropBox because it’s not tied to one of the main computer services companies – Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc. The other issue I have with Drop Box is the simple fact that 2 GB is not all that much storage. Yes, you can upgrade for a relatively low price, but I’ll admit to being a cheapskate when it comes to computer services. If there’s a workable, free (or less expensive) alternative I’m going to take advantage of it.
If you’ve read some of my previous posts you might be surprised to see this here. My wife does have an iPhone, and we have iCloud installed on her Windows 8 computer. It works pretty well, much better than iTunes works on Windows. I’m sure it works much better between Apple devices. Apple does offer a web version of iWork (Apple’s suite of office programs) that you can access through the iCloud web portal, but I didn’t really care for it. However if you are an Apple user, I understand that iWork on the web offers a great solution for opening Microsoft Office documents and easily converting them to iWork format. I don’t know any specifics of how much storage iCloud offers for free.
Google Drive offers 15 GB of free storage to anyone with an Android device or a Gmail, Google + or Chrome account. At this point, that includes almost everyone who uses the Internet. Google Drive is great for collaboration with documents. Lots of businesses and individuals use Google Drive this way. You can share a document with multiple people, they can make changes, and those changes show up on everyone’s version of the document instantaneously.
Unfortunately the final product of that collaboration has to be converted to a regular document before it can be shared with the world, and that’s the main issue I have with Google Drive: it is completely web-based. Even when you download the folder to your computer, when you open the document it opens up your web browser instead of taking you to an office program. There are some workarounds, but they require a lot of extra work. Yes, you can e-mail Google Docs, but all it sends is a link instead of an actual file attachment. If you’re sending a prospective employer a resume, you don’t want to take a chance and hope they understand Google Drive. You want to send a document attached that the person can open with their regular office program.
I use Google Drive for my Sunday School lessons every week. It is great for simple documents like that: they are accessible anywhere, storage is simple and everything saves automatically. But it’s limited in what it can do. And Google is changing the way mobile devices access Google Drive, so it’s probably going to be worse in the future.
OneDrive is Microsoft’s answer to iCloud and Google Drive, and it is spectacular. Over the past few years Microsoft hasn’t done a lot of things right, but OneDrive is a welcome exception. It offers 7 GB of free storage, which you can bump up to 10 if you connect your phone (doesn’t matter if it’s iPhone, Android or BlackBerry) and allow OneDrive to automatically store your pictures. You access OneDrive with the same e-mail and password that you log in to a Windows 8 PC, tablet or phone or your Xbox Live or Skype account. If you don’t have any of these, you can set up a free account.
OneDrive allows you to create documents in docx, xlsx and pptx formats right from your web browser. You can share them via e-mail or link on the web like Google Docs, or you can download the folder to your computer (the folder downloads to any computer, not just Windows 8) and they show up as regular documents in your directory, which you can attach to any e-mail or edit with Microsoft Office or a competitor like Kingsoft Office that saves files in the “x” format. All you have to do it hit “save” in Office and the changes are automatically saved to your OneDrive. OneDrive also offers mobile apps for all platforms. You can e-mail documents from the app, but you must have either Microsoft Office or a third-party office app to edit files.
Microsoft Office – Word, Excel, PowerPoint – remains the world standard for documents. Office is a huge money maker for Microsoft, and with OneDrive it looks like they’re giving away the store. But one has to assume that OneDrive is a big part of Microsoft’s strategy to remain the undisputed leader in documents. Over the past few years Google Docs, iWork and the open-source alternatives Libre Office and Open Office have chipped away at Office’s dominance. People started figuring out that, at least on their home computers, they didn’t need the expense of Office to produce high-quality documents. OneDrive is a solution to at least keep more people using Office’s formats. When more people out there are using Office’s formats, the more entrenched Office remains in the long term. Seems like a sound strategy to me. Certainly more sound than limiting access for non-Windows devices and/or forcing people to buy expensive software.