Can We Live in the Cloud?

by Mike Shea on 27 December 2010

30 seconds on living in the cloud

We're getting closer to being able to live in the cloud. Today we have excellent cloud-based services for email, online document storage, music subscription, and photo sharing. Successfully living in the cloud is all about your data - who owns it, where you store it, and how you access it. Movies, TV, and video files don't really have good cloud-based services yet. Hollywood is a long time away from giving us full access to its entire works. So we're close to being able to live in the cloud but some areas are still far off.

My mother and her expectations for cloud computing

This past weekend my mother and step father bought a Mac Mini for themselves for Christmas. When my mom started it up, she opened iTunes, typed in her email address and her password, and waited for her music to show up on her new computer. It was only after a couple of phone calls that she realized she needed to copy her music files over from her laptop to her Mac. After all, she bought the music from iTunes, why wouldn't it download them again? She signed in and everything?

Why indeed!

Short of the cost of bandwidth, I can't see why iTunes wouldn't let you redownload all your music once you've set it up on a new computer. They have the files. They have your account info. They know you bought it. Why not just give it to you? It would make perfect sense and it would make getting a computer a much nicer experience.

This got me thinking, what stops us from living in the cloud now? What stuff do we expect to manage locally as files and what could we just reach out to the net and get? What is the current state?

Google recently released its first prototype Chrome OS browser-based laptop. They're betting heavily on the success of a cloud-based computing client. Early reviews don't think we're there yet. They don't understand a machine that doesn't give you access to local storage space. They don't see the sort of application-level response they expect from typical computer use.

When we break our computer use down to the things we actually do with it, how does it break down? What could we do in the cloud? What isn't yet ready for the cloud? What are the other tricks?

Email & social network software

Many of us already use cloud-based email exclusively. I use Gmail and most of my friends and family either use Gmail or Yahoo mail or Hotmail. It's easy, it's cheap, it's well understood. Go to any internet-connected machine in the world and you have your stuff. Social software like Facebook and Twitter are the same way. As long as that company, their backups, and your account last, your data are safe and you don't need to host it locally.

Documents

I've started posting all of my documents to Evernote and it is the perfect example of a tool that understands the advantages of both the cloud and storing stuff locally. Evernote keeps your files in sync across any number of computing clients. Get rid of your local My Documents directory and start keeping everything in Evernote and you can transfer between machines without missing a beat.

Drop Box works the same way and fits our understanding of a directory structure a little better than Evernote. Setting up Drop Box on a new machine gives you access to all of the files you stored there before. It doesn't give you a lot of room, however, and more room costs more money. At least you know they have a business model!

So yes, you could live your life with all of your documents stored in the cloud either with Evernote or Drop Box or, like in my case, both. Moving over to a new machine simply requires that you set up the software and it will download everything automatically.

Pictures

There are a few good ways to store pictures in the cloud. Both Flickr and Picasaweb do a fine job. While it scares me to death, lots of people are storing their photos in Facebook now. Given Facebook's new ability to download a copy of your data, I suppose that's a safe way to store photos on the web.

There's also no reason you couldn't store photos with Drop Box as well. You'll just likely need the pro account.

Music

Music is a tough nut. First of all, we could go subscription based. $5 a month gives you access to a large library of music using Mog, Rhapsody, and others. It's a little bit of a shift from owning music to renting music. You might pay $60 to $120 a month for any song you wish but you'll walk away with nothing the day you quit the service. The service Grooveshark seems to offer a good selection for what appears to be free.

While you could use Drop Box to store your music, you're going to be getting into bigger and bigger amounts of data which will clog up your network connection and slow down your computer. Also, while it will work fine for a backup, it won't really let you run from multiple machines at the same time.

If you're happy to rent your music for $5 a month, one of these streaming music services is probably the best way to go.

Movies, TV, and Video

Like music, we can think about going from ownership to renting. Unlike music, Hollywood hasn't yet come up with a good full streaming service for movies. Netflix Instant is pretty good. I've recently switched over to an Instant-only service. There's a ton of TV shows and b-list movies to watch. But it's far from complete. The same goes for Hulu and just about every other service. There just isn't a complete library.

Video is also really big. We can fill up a 50GB Drop Box limit with less than 20 movies or 40 TV episodes. It's just not big enough for a collection. They also clog up CPU cycles, thrashing hard disks, and bandwidth when you're moving them around.

If you're happy with what Netflix has to offer, you could stick to that and call it an 80% solution.

Games

I won't spend too much time on games because it's too messy a topic. There are tons of mediocre cloud-based games which probably fills the needs of most. All the Zynga Farmville-type monstrosities run just fine in the cloud. Games like World of Warcraft require huge client loads but all of your important bits, like your character data, are stored remote. Most single player games still require a client download but its usually easy enough to install them elsewhere.

Frankly, I'd stick to iPad, iPhone, and console games with maybe a little World of Warcraft thrown in. Not exactly cloud-based gaming but it will do.

What about backing up your stuff?

I talked already about the risks of trusting your data exclusively in the cloud. The right answer, at this time, seems to be hosting your data with a web-based service and hosting a local copy as well. The best programs, like Evernote and Drop Box, handle this for you. Most apps, like email and iPhoto, require your own intervention to ensure you're storing both locally and in the cloud. The worst, like iTunes for movies, force you to manage your files locally but still hold a key to those files. No matter how many times you back up your iTunes movies, if Apple goes under or decides to stop supporting it (likely to happen over the next 30 years), your movies die no matter how diligently you managed your data.

Better yet, the best backup plan you can have is not caring about your data. Keep the amount and size of your vital data small and back it up religiously. For the rest let it burn if the gods will it.

It's all about the data

If you haven't noticed, I seem to be fixated on the data and not worrying about the applications themselves. As far as I'm concerned, I don't really care about the apps. They're either already here, or they'll be here. I don't care if they're local or remote. I don't care if they're super-thin HTML pages or thick Objective C apps. What I care about, the stuff that concerns me the most when I move from machine to machine, is my data. Where is it? How do I access it? How is it being backed up? Who owns it? How do I migrate it? These are the questions I care about.

Where does this leave us?

Truely living in the cloud has major limitations right now. For data under 50GB, you can live nicely in the cloud with Drop Box for $100 a year. That's cheaper in both time and money than having to manage your own data locally and it gives you a lot of convenience. Music is probably at the point where you could live in the cloud although you're going to be paying $60 a year and won't have anything to show at the end of it when you quit.

Movies and TV shows are a mess but Netflix does a servicable job. We can hope that, one day, Hollywood gets off its ass and gives us what we want. In the mean time we can watch Dexter and Babylon 5 reruns.

Here's a short list of services to get you living in the cloud:

In short, while we could make a servicable attempt to truly live in the cloud now, it would be an ugly and messy experience.

Send comments to mike@mikeshea.net or follow @mshea on Twitter. If you enjoyed this article, please use this link to Amazon.com for your next online purchase.