January 30, 2012 12:19 am

The gathering storm

I have looked at clouds from both sides now, as Joni Mitchell once sang, and learned not to believe that those nebulous, occluding, depressing things might bring structure, clarity and happiness to my digital life.

Putting our data into the cloud is meant to be the answer to the problem of creating information on multiple devices and having to remember where you saved it. If you take a picture on a phone and upload it to the server “cloud” in some remote data centre of a particular photo storage service, you can then see the same photo on any other internet-connected device ... or so the theory goes.

But what if there is more than one photo cloud? I use a scud of cloud services and that photo I took on my phone could have ended up on Facebook, Picplz, Instagram, Flickr, Picasa or Apple’s iCloud, in my case.

The same goes for music. I have bought music on iTunes, Amazon and Google Music, and while I know my tracks are safely stored with each of them, I could not tell you which service holds what.

The problem can be multiplied by the number of members of your family consuming or producing media on different devices. Who took the photos of the birthday party and on which camera or phone, using what memory card and logged in on which account is the kind of unsolvable mystery often facing my family when trying to gather pictures together.

In theory, Apple has nailed it with iCloud. Take a photo or change a document on your iPad and the same photo and revisions will appear on your iPhone and Mac computer, without you having to do a thing.

I love watching the Photo Stream of images uploaded to my Windows PC or recorded on my iPhone on a big screen, courtesy of my Apple TV being able to access iCloud. But, iCloud works best with Apple devices and you may not wish to switch over to Apple entirely. It also cannot handle video and the company does not have a proper solution yet for merging multiple accounts.

In addition, iCloud costs money beyond the first five gigabyte of storage – adding another 20GB is $40 a year – but, to be fair, this is standard practice for software as a service.

I predict consumers will soon become accustomed to subscribing to ever more services.

I am already beginning to suffer from creeping cloud costs myself. Flickr was my first commitment – to an unlimited-storage Pro account for photos and videos. Then I exceeded my Gmail email limit and added 20GB more – if only for $5 a year. Any service could be upgraded next, and this could soon be costing me more than a physical back-up drive or home server for storage.

I do like Eye-Fi as a marshalling yard for media. The Silicon Valley company sells SD memory cards for digital cameras that have Wi-Fi embedded in them. The cards can automatically upload anything taken to my home PC as soon as they are in range of my home Wi-Fi network, and they upload to the cloud as well.

Eye-Fi keeps my photos and videos on its servers for seven days while I decide what to do with them, or it can give me unlimited time and storage for $50 a year.

The best feature, though, is the ability to choose to forward files automatically to more than 25 different services, from Facebook to Flickr, or even to a digital photo frame in my parents’ home across the Atlantic.

Of course, I need to buy several more Eye-Fi cards to equip the whole family’s cameras and this solution does not work with iCloud or photos I take on mobile phones.

For documents and general-purpose cloud storage, I use several services and, although they have overlapping capabilities, I use each for a specific purpose in order not to compound my confusion about where to find things.

Google Docs is where I create and share documents, save email attachments and convert individual emails to documents. Microsoft now has an online version of Office – Office 365 – but it is too late for me to switch now.

Evernote is where I keep clips of web pages, photos of receipts and notes on subjects I am interested in. It has comprehensive tools to make saving simple, and finding is easy as well – through tags, text search and even the optical character recognition it automatically carries out on photos and scans.

Dropbox is where I keep files – documents, PDFs, photos and even music – I receive on different devices. Saving any of these to a Dropbox folder means they are reproduced and made accessible in Dropbox folders on different PCs, Macs, my iPhone, iPad and Android devices. This turns it into a quasi-cloud service, using the power of the cloud to sync files stored locally.

Box.net is similar to Dropbox, but I like to use its browser-based interface to upload and share gadget photos with the picture desk in London. It is a good interface, accepts large file sizes and gives previews of uploaded pictures.

Of other types of services, I like Tungle.me for sharing my diary and Wunderlist, one of many “to-do” task managers that syncs itself across various devices.

I could go on – the list of cloud services is long enough to need its own back-up capacity in the cloud.

I am currently trying Bitcasa, a service promising infinite storage – just right click on a local folder, select “cloudify” and everything is encrypted and transported to the cumulus.

I would recommend settling on just a handful of the above – the job of sampling all the different services has brought me disorder and complexity on occasion.

Cloud services should make our lives simpler and easier, “but still somehow”, as Joni sings, “it’s cloud illusions I recall. I really don’t know clouds at all.”

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An app a day keeps disorder at bay: organise and synchronise data with these services

Pinterest

Pinterest has “next big thing” pinned to it. The app and web service is a virtual pinboard that allows you to save and organise pictures easily. It can be photos from your phone’s camera or ones cut out from web pages using a browser tool. Boards organise your pins according to the designated theme – a recipe collection, planning a wedding, recording a holiday or a lifetime – and others can contribute to your board or you to theirs.

SugarSync

Dropbox, Box and SugarSync are equally adept at keeping your files synchronised on different devices via the cloud. I like the new Android and iOS versions of SugarSync, which have improved syncing of video and photos on mobile devices. They can be transferred automatically to linked PCs as you record or take them. Music can be streamed from remote computers to your phone and documents saved for offline viewing on your tablet.

ZeroPC

ZeroPC is one answer to having too many cloud services – it organises and pulls them all together. Add your different accounts – Facebook, Flickr, Dropbox, Evernote, Google – and it collates files from each one, allowing you to view documents, photos, music and videos in a single interface. A browser version gives you a PC-like desktop in the cloud, where files can be backed up and dragged from one service to another.

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