All of us have data. We have contacts, email, various kinds of files we want instant and consistent access to. We want it to be current, and protected, and available pretty much no matter where we are. This pretty much means keeping everything in a single place. It’s either that, or very reliable synchronization between all storage places to ensure everything is up to date.
This sounds like something that should be easy to do, but it really isn’t.
Let’s assume we need to be able to access email, contacts, a calendar and files from pretty much anywhere we might go. This might be a case of simply having work and home computers that are both used regularly, or maybe a lot of travel is involved. Further, let’s assume that bringing a laptop isn’t what we’re after. Sure, it’s a great choice and that’s why so many people do it, but we’re looking to ditch the heavy bag.
Let’s look at the choices:
USB Flash Drives.
You simply keep your data on one of these babies, and carry it with you. Most computers have USB interfaces these days, so it’s not usually a problem to get access, and they are very small for the most part. They’re even pretty fast if you have a USB 2.0 port to plug it into.
The main problems are:
Size, currently limited to a few GB, and cost – those few GB are about $100 each. True you only have to buy them once, but still.
Security is also a concern, if you lose the drive and it’s not encrypted that can be a big problem. Reliable secure encryption is not very convenient.
Backups are not easily automated (to another drive) and are easy to forget.
It’s tricky to get email onto these things in a smooth way, especially with Outlook, and there’s no way I’m aware of to make it seamless. I’m still investigating, and if someone has a trick I’d love to hear about it.
A device like Palm’s new LifeDrive.
This is a pretty sweet alternative – it’s got built in syncing to all the apps we need, and it will not only carry our data but allow us to access it when no other computer is available. True, an Internet cafe isn’t likely to have the syncing software installed, but that could be carried separately. Alternatively, carrying a memory stick or SD based combination reader/flash drive would allow easy data transfer between the Palm and a computer, although we’re definitely entering kludge territory with that option.
Backpack is a new service that allows you to store files & images on the web, as well as to-do lists, notes and reminders. You can also create web pages, and make them available to people. The real strength here is the collaborative possibilities that are opened with you make pages available to folks. That is pretty cool.
Price. It’s a really neat service, but it will probably fail unless they revise their pricing – $20 a month for 250mb of storage when Flickr charges the same for a YEAR of service with unlimited storage is a bit of a joke. Google offers 2GB of email space for free, and others are jumping on the bandwagon. Why is Backpack so expensive? I suspect because they are looking at web-hosting as their competition. They’re wrong, their competition is a free Blogger
account coupled with a free Flickr
account and free icalx
account. That combination provides 90% of the functionality of Backpack, for free, with fewer space constraints. True it’s not as smooth to use, but it’s free.
Contacts clunky. I haven’t yet found out how to put contacts in Backpack in a “contacty” way. I mean, other than uploading a list.
You will need a separate email account. Not a big deal, and likely to be done anyway.
The calendar is pretty primitive – reminders only, basically.
Google mail provides 2GB of storage, and it’s a simple matter to attach a file to an email you send to yourself. An added benefit none of the other provides is that there is built-in backup via retention of older versions with Gmail, as well as very nice labeling and searching functions. You can group files in a single email, which provides an interesting method of organization. It also handles contacts. Plus, it’s already in email so it’s easy to send to others. Last but not least, while you’re sending it to yourself why not add a line or two about what you’ve done to the file?
Contacts can be uploaded, but not downloaded easily.
No calendar at all – not even delayed send on email. Could be gotten around with an account on icalx.com.
It’s invitation only. Not a real big deal, as you probably know someone who can send an invite. If anyone wants one of the 30 or so I have available, let me know.
Microsoft Exchange hosting.
If you don’t like Gmail, exchange hosting like these guys could be just the ticket. You get a calendar, contacts, tasks, and notes all in addition to email. There are lots of folks offering this, so prices and capacities vary a lot. You typically get web access as well as normal via Outlook access, so it’s really pretty darn portable. You can handle files by emailing them to yourself. Last but not least, you can make some things public.
I think I’ve covered the main alternatives, and none of them are perfect. I’m sure the next year or so will see more online services, and convergence between USB drives, services and other devices. If you have a an interesting solution I’ve not mentioned here, I’d really like to hear about it.