by Larry Magid
When it comes to technology, 2012 is going to be very “cloudy” as more people discover the benefits of storing data and running software via the Internet.
The term cloud basically means that your data — and in some cases your software — is stored somewhere other than on the device you’re actually using. Cloud computing has many advantages, including the possibility of accessing far more storage and far more computing power than the computer on your desktop or the device in your hand.
This is especially true as more and more applications gravitate toward mobile devices, which typically have much less storage and processing power than modern desktop PCs. It’s also a factor with the newest laptop PCs — like the MacBook Air and the new breed of Ultrabook Windows machines that typically use faster and more energy-efficient solid-state drives with much less capacity than most hard drives.
There are lots of cloud products out there, but among the easiest to use and comprehend are cloud storage solutions like Dropbox and SugarSync. They allow you to store data on remote servers to access from other devices, share with other people and — perhaps most important — serve as an off-premise backup in case something happens to your device. Both services work on PCs and Macs as well as mobile devices such as the iPhone, Android devices and BlackBerrys.
When you install the software on a PC or Mac, it creates a Dropbox folder on your computer and any file you store in that folder is automatically synced to the Dropbox server. If you use Dropbox on more than one computer, it syncs those files between them. For example, I started writing this column from a coffee shop using my MacBook. When I saved it to my Mac’s Dropbox folder, the file was automatically in my desktop PC’s Dropbox folder when I got home. All I had to do to start using that file was to open it. And, when I saved it to my PC’s Dropbox folder it was automatically be available on my Mac.
To sync a file, it must be placed in the Dropbox folder. The service doesn’t currently sync files in other folders.
You can also share with other people, making it easy for several people to collaborate on a document. One caveat is that the file counts against the free (or paid) storage space for each person who has access to the document.
Dropbox offers 2 gigabytes of free storage with the option to pay $99 a year for 50 gigabytes or $199 for 100 GB. There is also a Dropbox for Teams aimed at enterprises that need a large amount of shared storage. You can start with a free account and upgrade later if necessary.
SugarSync also lets you backup and share files. But unlike Dropbox, you don’t need to create or manage special folders. Instead you can sync any folder on your hard drive to the cloud and have the option to sync folders between computers. I have a folder on my PC, for example, that’s also shared on my Mac. So anytime I make a change to a file within that folder on either machine, it’s also changed on the other machine.
You can use SugarSync to share files with other users, but unlike Dropbox, the storage only counts against the account of the person who’s doing the sharing and won’t impact the storage quota of people you share with.
Although it’s optimized for auto-syncing any folders, SugarSync also has something called “Magic Briefcase” that is similar to Dropbox. Any file placed into that folder can be accessed from wherever you log in. SugarSync also allows you to make files public if you want to share them with the world.
SugarSync is not quite as simple to use as Dropbox, but is more versatile and you get a more storage on the free account and more for your money with paid accounts.
SugarSync offers 5 gigabytes for free, or you can get 60 gigabytes for $100 a year, 100 GB for $150 and 250 GB for $250.
There are, of course, lots of other cloud products. For users of iPhones and iPads, iCloud is a great free way to make sure that your data is synced between devices. It also keeps email, contacts and calendars up to date across the devices.
Google is all about the cloud. Gmail, or any other Web-based email program, uses the cloud not only to store your messages but also to run the Web-based software that manages your mail. Google Docs does the same for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, forms and drawings.