The idea behind cloud computing is pretty simple: all your stuff—contacts, music files, photos, Word docs, e-mail, calendar, etc.—is stored online in "cloud" servers and available to you from any of your devices, wherever you are.
Imagine, for example, creating a shopping list on your desktop computer and storing it in the cloud. When you're out and about you remember some other things you need. You take out your iPad and add those items to your list, which had automatically been synced to your iPad. When you're at work, your spouse thinks of some other items, opens the list from her iPhone and adds them to it. Finally, at lunch, you stop by the store, open the list, and everything's there. You didn't need to do anything: the list was automatically shared among all of your computers and devices, and any changes you made, from whatever device, got made to that file on all of your computers and devices.
I like the elegance and the extraordinary convenience of the cloud. And all of the big players—Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, and many others—see this as the wave of the future and are competing hard to give you the best service.
Cloud computing is still in its early stages, and it's not as seamless and comprehensive as it will eventually become. Everyone is convinced that the cloud is the future but no one is quite sure what consumers need or want. In this article I'll mention some of the most popular apps and services that give you amazing functionality, and I'll outline some of the latest developments, including the nascent iCloud from Apple, Amazon Cloud Drive, Music Beta by Google, and Microsoft's Windows Live SkyDrive.
Free up to 5GB of storage, apple.com/icloud
With the arrival of iOS 5 and iCloud in the fall, it will no longer be necessary to connect your iPhone or iPad to a computer in order to put music on your device, sync contacts, update software, etc. Your devices will simply communicate with the cloud. The aspect of iCloud called iTunes in the Cloud is already available. (See sidebar for more information.)
So how will it work in practice? Let's consider your calendar and contacts. With iOS 5.0, this data will automatically be synced to iCloud. You don't need to do anything. Then if you get a new phone, you simply log into your Apple account with the new device, and your entire calendar and contact info is automatically put onto your new phone.
iCloud also automatically backs up all of your photos as you take them—the 1,000 most recent—and pushes them to your other devices. Take a photo with your iPhone and it automatically appears on your desktop computer. Again, no syncing is necessary.
Finally, iCloud automatically updates the apps you've purchased and the iOS software. Only the new portion of the code gets pushed to your device, so it's a lot faster. You don't need to think about it—iOS and your apps are always up to date.
Apple's iCloud cuts the umbilical cord. The cloud will now handle all the details, automatically in the background without your having to think about it.
iTunes in the Cloud
While most of iCloud's features will arrive this fall, iTunes in the Cloud is already available with the release of iTunes 10.3.1. It competes with the new services from Amazon and Google, but is different in function and features.
As of this writing, its focus is syncing music to your devices. Unlike Amazon and Google, iTunes in the Cloud does not let you stream your music directly from the Cloud. But unlike the others, you don't need to go through the tedious step of uploading all your music to their storage services.
When you purchase a song in iTunes, it not only downloads it to the computer or device you're using to purchase it, it also sends it to your other computers or devices that have iTunes installed (up to 10 devices). Buy it on your iPhone, and there it is the next time you sit down at your desktop computer. You can even select what music to have on which device.
In addition, it also syncs your past iTunes purchases to your computers and devices. The updated version of iTunes lets you access your purchase history and select which music you'd like to have downloaded to any of your devices.
You also have the option of paying $25 a year for a service called iTunes Match. This service will scan your computer for music that you didn't purchase from the iTunes Store, replace it with the higher quality versions from the iTunes Store, and then add it to your collection. The result is that the music is now available through the cloud to all your devices. Everybody wins with this service. You're getting higher-quality versions of music that may have been ripped in low-quality formats. You'll have your complete collection of music stored online and accessible to all your devices. And the publishers will be getting some money back on music that may have been downloaded illegally. (Seventy percent of the annual fee goes to music publishers; 30 percent to Apple for managing the service.) It's an elegant system.
As this is being written, iTunes in the Cloud is only available in the U.S.
I was astonished at how simple and fast it was to get started with Dropbox. I downloaded their free software on my desktop computer, followed a couple prompts, and that was it.
Dropbox put a folder on my computer, and any file I save to that folder is stored in the cloud and automatically synced to the Dropbox apps on my iPhone and iPad. If I make changes to those files, the changes are automatically updated in the cloud and on my iOS devices. In addition, I can access the files from any Internet-connected computer via the Dropbox website. (I can even stream my music files from my Dropbox account.) Similarly, almost any file I create on my iOS device, such as photos or movies, can be saved to a Dropbox-enabled app on my device, which then automatically uploads to the cloud and syncs it with my other Dropbox-enabled computers.
There are a variety of iOS apps that let you access to your Dropbox files, including one from Dropbox. This app lets you view your files (such as Word docs, photos, PDF files, and text documents), share files with others, and save e-mail attachments directly to your Dropbox account. It also lets you open those files in compatible apps. For example, you can open Word docs in Pages ($9.99, app2.me/2412). However, to upload a file to Dropbox, the app must be designed to do that. So, for example, you can open and view a Word document in Pages, but if you edit the document, you cannot save the changes to Dropbox. Fortunately, there are a number of Office-compatible apps for iOS devices that work seamlessly with Dropbox.
Office2 (iPhone/iPod touch: $5.99, app2.me/3110; iPad: $7.99, app2.me/2508) is one of the best in terms of integration with cloud-based services. You can use this app to create and edit Word files (.doc and .docx) and Excel files (.xls only). You can open Dropbox files from within the app, and your changes are automatically synced to the cloud. It doesn't have the document formatting capabilities of other apps, and like most iOS apps has some limitations regarding working with complex Excel files. But because of its low cost and cloud integration, I've chosen to highlight it here.
Other apps that let you work directly with files in Dropbox include iA Writer ($4.99, app2.me/3501), Elements-Dropbox Powered Text Editor ($4.99, app2.me/3500), Quickoffice Pro ($14.99, app2.me/115), and DocumentsToGo Pro ($16.99, app2.me/286). Also, PDF reader apps such as GoodReader ($4.99, app2.me/2925) integrate well with Dropbox. In addition, the Dropbox website (dropbox.com/apps) has a list of nearly 200 iPhone and iPad apps that work with Dropbox.
If you need more than the 2G of free storage that Dropbox offers, you can pay $10 per month for 50GB or $20 per month for 100GB.
Everyone needs to back up their files, and remote online backup is the best. Carbonite is an excellent choice because of its simplicity and because it then gives you access to all your files via your iPhone or iPad. Like Dropbox, Carbonite is easy to set up and use. It's a backup service for all your files and settings on your desktop computer, with the ability to view those files on your iOS device via the free Carbonite Access app. Carbonite offers a free two-week trial. If you like the service, you can subscribe to it for $59 per year for unlimited storage. You download the software, click a couple of dialog boxes, and Carbonite automatically backs up all your personal files and settings. By default, it doesn't backup movies. However, you can change that setting to accomplish this.
Unlike other services, there's very little setup. On the Mac, for example, it simply backs up everything in the User folder, as well as settings. If you want to, you can specify the folders you want to back up. As with Dropbox, it backs up your files as you create them or make changes. The beauty of it is that you then have access to all of your files via your iOS device. You can view documents and photos and even stream your music files.
While Carbonite offers unlimited storage, they do say that if you have over 200GB, it slows down the backup process noticeably. The initial backup takes time—maybe a few days— but after that each incremental backup just takes minutes.
Amazon Cloud Drive
5GB free storage, amazon.com/clouddrive/learnmore
Amazon Cloud Drive is a file storage service that also includes the ability to stream music. By signing up for a free Amazon account (if you don't already have one), you get 5GB of free storage on Amazon Cloud Drive. It doesn't have the elegant syncing capability of Dropbox and isn't as simple to use, but it gives you more storage for free and a catalog of music to purchase.
If you use Cloud Drive to store your music, you can access the free Amazon Cloud Player to stream that music via any web browser, whether on a desktop computer or iOS device. (There's an app for Android devices, but as this was being written one was not available for iOS devices.)
Amazon is striving to be a "music locker," a way of accessing your music without having to store it all on your computer or your mobile device. This has a number of advantages, such as having all of your music in one place and being able to access it from any computer or any device. You can search, browse, or download your music, as well as create playlists. Using the Cloud Player does, of course, necessitate the tedious step of first uploading all your music to Amazon Cloud Drive.
If you purchase music from Amazon, you can store it in Amazon Cloud Drive for free. Plus, as an introductory promotional offer, if you buy an MP3 album from Amazon by the end of 2011, they'll automatically bump up your free storage limit to 20GB for a year.
You can buy additional storage: 20GB for $10 per year, 50GB for $50, and on up to 1,000 GB for $1,000.
Music Beta by Google
Currently free; available by invitation only; music.google.com
In May Google announced Music Beta by Google, an invitation-only music storage service that was still in its testing phase when this article was being written. If you've registered with Google for any of their services, you can log in and then can sign up to receive an invitation at the Internet address above. The service allows you to store up to 20,000 songs. The beta version of this service is currently free and only available in the U.S.
Similar to Amazon's service, Music Beta is a music locker that gives you access to your music from any computer or device. The service includes software for your desktop computer that you use to upload your music. And once all of your music is uploaded, the software will monitor your computer and automatically upload any additional music you buy. Unlike Amazon, you don't have the option of purchasing music through Google.
Music Beta does not yet have an app for iOS devices, but you can access your music via Safari on your device. Once you've received an invitation and have uploaded your music, simply go to music.google.com/music via your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch and log in.
There's a navigation bar at the bottom of the page for controlling your music, creating playlists, etc. You can also listen to music in the background by tapping the home button twice and then swiping left to see the music player shortcuts. More information can be found at webtablab.com/apple/use-google-music-beta-on-iphone-ipad-ipod-touch.
One hitch with music lockers is that you need to be connected to the Internet. But Music Beta by Google also has a feature that lets you listen to music offline. Your recently played songs are available offline, as well as any specific albums, artists, and playlists that you select for offline listening.
Finally, where Amazon lets you store any kind of file on their Cloud Drive, Google's service is focused solely on music.
Microsoft's Windows Live SkyDrive
Free, 25GB storage, explore.live.com/windows-live-skydrive
Microsoft's SkyDrive has the advantage of offering 25GB of free storage (though no single file can be uploaded that's larger than 50MB). Unfortunately, there aren't many options for accessing and viewing stored files via your iOS device.
iSMEStorage ($4.99, app2.me/3113) seems to be one of the only options. It gives you access to dozens of cloud services via your iPhone or iPad or iPod touch. You can access two different cloud services for free, but then must pay an additional $2 for each cloud service. Once you've selected your clouds, it gives you a file system view of their contents. The app has a number of features, such as the ability to upload files directly from the app, the ability to create notes or voice memos and upload them to the cloud, and the ability to open any of your stored files in apps on your device that support the particular file type. You can read more about it in this review: ipadiquity.com/tag/ismestorage.
Soonr is a cloud-based service for small and medium business that not only offers the ability to store, share, access, and sync files, but also the ability to edit Microsoft Office files both online and offline from within the Soonr app. It claims to be the first cloud service with integrated editing for the iPad. You can also specify that other apps open specific file types. Their free iOS apps were launched in May. Soonr offers a free 2GB trial account, with their paid service beginning at $7.95 per month for three users.
This seems like an ideal solution if you need to use your iPad for working with Microsoft Office documents and have those documents synced among your computers and devices. In some ways the functionality is similar to using Dropbox combined with an app such as Quickoffice, as described earlier. However, Soonr's service goes further in providing an integrated environment. It offers collaboration tools allowing you to share documents among users and control who can make changes to which documents. Version control lets you access previous versions of a document. And you can receive notifications via SMS.
Other features include the ability to search across computers, view a wide range of file types, print to a shared printer, and fax via eFax. Soonr provides continuous backup of your files.
2011: The Year of The Cloud!
This seems to be the year of the cloud, and there are many free or low-cost services that almost anyone can use. It's great to see the increasing integration of cloud services with iOS devices. Eventually it will all just be automatic: everything will always be available to you from any device, always backed up, and always in sync. I look forward to that day.