Why the Cloud Sucks: Part II

Author’s note: Sorry I haven’t been writing much lately, folks. I’ve been ultrabusy in my personal life – but now that I have some time again, I’ve realized something. No matter what I do during the day and no matter how much (or little) money I make, I don’t feel like myself unless I write. So expect a lot more articles out of me this Fall…

Now, back to Why the Cloud Sucks!

Online Storage

When you think of “The Cloud,” you think of “cloud storage” – Internet-based hard drives (such as Xdrive, Sharepoint, even flickr) where you can store things on “someone else’s computer.” The benefit is, you don’t technically have to back your photos up (they’re backed up by the staff at the website), and you can access that media from just about any computer. The down side is, “someone else” technically posesses your documents – most of the time there’ll be privacy pledges AND/OR rights ownership stipulations (who owns the photos I upload to flickr or Facebook?). Your best bet is always to back up your stuff to your OWN backup hard drive, and if you care about who owns your work (all you aspiring photographers out there), spend a few hours perusing those End User License Agreements before you click “Yeah whatever I agree!”

It’s one thing to lose all your music (see Part I), but your personal work and photos are exponentially more important…

EMAIL

When one of my clients had his Gmail account hacked this week, it made me realize my job in the next 10 years will be a bit less Windows-virus-rescue related and more I-Can’t-Get-Into-My-Cloud-Account related. At first I didn’t really know what to tell him. Are you using Firefox as opposed to Internet Explorer? Good. Okay uhh… So I looked into the link above (click on the word “hacked”) and learned a lot. A lot of it is pretty straightforward – If your Gmail account is hacked and you click “Can’t access your account”, they’re going to want to see some proof that you’re the real Slim Shady. Know when you opened your Gmail (and other Google) account, the names of 3 frequently-contacted contacts, and the names of 3 message labels (ones you created to categorize your mail, such as Relatives, Work, or eBay Receipts). Knowing the contents of some of the messages isn’t a bad idea either.

In order to prevent hacking in the first place, change your password once in a while, and don’t use the same password for everything in the rare case that your account at joeblowshouseofflyfishing.com is compromised. Finally, NEVER use Internet Explorer (it’s the devil) and if at all possible, don’t use Windows.

Now, imagine your power or water service being cut off during an emergency. When service is restored, it’s the same power or water you’re used to. However, having a Cloud account hacked (such as a gmail, facebook, flickr, etc.) is more like getting your address book and family photos robbed from your house. Even if access to your account is restored, sometimes you don’t get your stuff back! So again, back those important files up on a backup drive. If you don’t know what you need or how to get one, I’ll sell you one.

POP vs IMAP

One thing I’ll agree with Cloud-heads on is email. Your email should be stored online in an email address, as opposed to downloaded to your computer. Here’s how it works:

POP3 email addresses (unfortunately, most Road Runner, Frontier, and other email accounts provided by the local utilities) are email accounts that download any new messages to your computer. Messages are viewed in a Mail Client, such as MS Outlook Express or Mozilla Thunderbird. (NEVER EVER EVER use Outlook Express – it lets viruses raid your address book for their next victims, and makes your computer a great candidate for Spam Zombiehood.) Emails are stored ONLY in your computer and you’re ONLY allowed to check your email from that ONE COMPUTER, pretty much forever. You can’t check your email from another computer, such as your vacation laptop. If you do spend the 10 minutes configuring that secondary computer, any new messages that are downloaded to it are only available there. Furthermore, if one of the computers starts on fire/drowns in a flood/otherwise explodes, all those emails are gone (unless you back them up, which is not very easy).

This is the cheap and flimsy way to offer email service.

The more sophisticated and clean way to do email is through a technology known as IMAP. IMAP stores all your emails on a central server. You can still use a client such as Outlook or Thunderbird (OR a smartphone!) to view those emails, but nothing is stored on your computer – if that computer blows up, no big deal! Your stuff’s tucked safely away on a mail server. (Back up all those photo attachments of the grandkids, of course.) Want to view your email on the travel laptop as well as the home desktop? Set up your client to point to the IMAP server and everything should synchronize perfectly, including records of any emails you’ve sent!!! (Some companies and schools may give you an Exchange email address – this is Microsoft’s version of IMAP and it’s somewhat usable – it follows the same principles as IMAP, plus it gives you a fancy Webmail app for when you’re at an Internet cafe and want to check in.)

Again, most utility companies provide POP3 email addresses for people – the only way these are usable is by using them in a Webmail fashion – in other words, going to “webmail.examplecompany.com” or whatever the address is, and leaving your emails on their server. You can access these emails from any Web browser on any computer or smartphone in the solar system! You can still download and upload attachments as well.

An alternative to either of these is just to sign up for a Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, or Gmail account – this way even if you do move out of town or change Internet providers for any reason, you don’t have to get a whole new email address. Gmail goes one step further and offers you a choice of POP3 or IMAP email service in case you’re more comfortable working with an email client program as opposed to a Web page.

Online Apps

Back in the late 1990s, I remember my Uncle telling me that the future of computing is online, and beyond that, the future of applications is there too. That was a lot of foresight to have back then, and only now is the latter part of his statement coming true. What do I mean? Well, back in the 80s, most everything you did on your computer stayed on your computer. Sure, you printed or transferred things to a floppy once in a while, but for the most part it was a nice quiet ascetic life for your Compy.

Then one day, AOL, Prodigy and the Internet came along. You were still creating documents on your MS Office software, editing photos in Photoshop, and playing DOS games, but you were exchanging these documents, photos, and games with friends. Fun, wasn’t it?

The late 2000s brought about the first of the Web apps. These are programs you don’t have to install on your computer – simply go to a Web site and start using them! Some of them (such as the Flash-based Pandora) are truly amazing. Others are good ideas in theory only (Google Docs), and still others (BMC Remedy) miss the point entirely and offer all the disadvantages of the Cloud with little to no advantage.

Pandora is basically an application that allows you to create your own customizable personal radio stations – you don’t download any music, but you type in a few of your favorite tunes and it searches for bands and songs that sound similar, then plays them for you ad infinitum. GREAT way to discover new music or keep a party going.

Meanwhile, MS Office 2007 gets even more confusing (that new Ribbon layout added to justify the cost of the upgrade, as far as I can tell) and bloated (Office Groove slows your computer down significantly. Can someone tell me what it does?). So if you don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for that, and you’re not savvy enough to have heard of OpenOffice, there’s a solution. This solution is Google Docs – This is the Web-obsessed Google’s free-of-charge take on office software. Simply go to docs.google.com and select from Word Processing, Spreadsheets, etc. You can save it to your Google (cloud) account, email it to friends as an attachment, or download it to your computer for safekeeping (highly recommended if it’s something important).

For collaboration, Google Docs is pretty much the only way to fly. Get this: You can grant your friends access to any of the Docs stored in your Google account! The possibilities here are endless. Let’s say you’re working on a document and want your friends to proofread and correct it as soon as possible. Grant them access. Let’s say you want all your roommates to be able to maintain a shopping list together. Done. Planning a vacation with your sweetheart? Both of you can add excursion ideas for the other to analyze. All authorized collaborators on the fly, 24/7, and the document is updated immediately. Go ahead, try it out now!

There are two drawbacks I can think of to using Google Docs – first is the “build quality” – I’ve experienced a ton of bugs when using it – one example common to Web-app word processors is the random thrusting of the cursor to the very top of the document while typing. Secondly, Google’s magnanimity makes me wonder – what are they getting out of this? Are they just trying to see if they can put Microsoft out of business? If it’s just that, or maybe the ability to scan your documents for key Ad words while maintaining your anonymity, then that’s cool with me. (Then again, putting two and two together to crack anonymity isn’t difficult for the crafty among us.)

BMC, which is SaaS (Software as a Service, in other words a subscription to a Web app), seems to miss the point entirely. For a fee, they’ll allow your employees to log in to their website and use their industry-leading Remedy(tm) work order management software. That’s all well and good, until you recall the fact that current first-generation Web apps are all be rather simple – no 3D flight simulators anytime soon. Worse yet, my personal experience with BMC has been nothing but daily outages and poor collaboration among their programmers – one aspect of the software functions entirely differently from the rest. So, why should we pay you to host a tiny little program that we can slap on to our own server? Well no reason, unless of course we’re the type people who lease automobiles…

So, while these Web Apps can be free and/or fun, they have their cons. Their features change all the time – so you have even LESS control and familiarity over the application than you do over the update-happy ones installed on your computer. Then you have the build quality issues, which may subside once better Web-programming languages and methods are devised. Finally, and obviously, there’s no way to access them while offline (such as in an airport or high-end hotel, at $10 per day!). So if you’re going to be on a 10-hour flight through the clouds, make sure that novel you’re typing is located on your laptop, not somewhere in eh… the… Cloud.

Stay tuned for more Teknosophy soon!!! Thanks for reading and please share with your friends!

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