Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Cloud Computing - Pie in the Sky ?

I was looking through my iPhone the other day with a view to clearing out some unused or redundant apps. You know how it is - you download something because it seems useful, and some months later you download something similar because it seems more useful, but you don't get rid of the first one...

Some of the decisions were simple. I'm only a casual gamer so any unplayed free games were the first to go. I really don't need three battery checkers, or two WiFi hotspot finders, and some of those "really useful" apps were no longer needed because they were all available within AppBox Pro. I decided that one Twitter client was also sufficient, so as much as I like TweetDeck I now use Tweetie2 most of the time. TweetDeck was duly consigned to the discard pile.

But then I came to my "business" apps. Some of these like PDF Reader, Merlin, Bento, Awesome Note, iXpensIt, Shrook and Things had to stay, either because they provide me with portable versions of my desktop apps, or because they are excellent apps which serve me well. That left a whole bunch of apps which serve a similar purpose, namely, to provide us with a way of viewing, storing and possibly editing "office" type files - documents, presentations and spreadsheets.

The trouble is that these apps have been designed to plug a perceived gap in the iPhones native apps. Apps like Files, QuickOffice, Dropbox, SugarSync, and Fliq were created so that we could copy files from our desktops, work on them whilst on the move, and download them again when we reached our destination. Or so that we could send them to our colleagues or clients in an emergency. Or so that we could be bound even tighter by the chains of the workplace which becomes ever more pervasive in our personal lives. The other problem is that none of these apps does everything that you actually need! They all do a little bit which is why you end up with a fistful of the darn things.

This got me thinking about the whole concept of cloud computing, the necessity of mobile access to our documents, and a bit about how we actually use our iPhones (or Blackberries, etc.) and perhaps how we should be using them.

I'm a bit of a sceptic when it comes to cloud computing. I believe it's based on an unsound principle which is that high speed, cheap and efficient internet connections are available to all people at all times and in all places. This is clearly not the case unless you live in South Korea. It is certainly not the case in rural Britain or if you are on public transport in the UK where I often have trouble getting a 2G signal. I'm not even going to begin to go into the security aspects. Companies have enough trouble looking after physical data sources like CDs, DVDs and Laptops, so what hope do they have securing data in the Ether?

In the year that I've had my iPhone I've accessed "work" documents a couple of times, generally to test out these new apps and see how my masterpieces look. I've used Smartphones and PDAs for over ten years altogether but I've yet to use an app to resolve a business crisis involving lost files and document editing on any of them. That's why I have a laptop with a Broadband dongle.

What I am interested in at the Apple Harvest is a smart way of synchronising data across laptop, netbook, desktop and occasionally the iPhone. I have no desire to create documents on the iPhone, other than short notes, baby spreadsheets and similar "aides de memoirs". If I know that my computers are in sync and my to-do lists, calendars and contacts , etc., on the iPhone are all up-to-date then I'm sorted. Because I work for myself security is my problem so I want to keep things simple, and generally I'm unfettered from corporate binds because I'm in touch with myself 24*7 anyway. So I've decided that I don't need all these apps to connect with my work.

Unfortunately there still isn't one app that can do everything I want. But I've whittled it down to two, SugarSync and Evernote, and some supporting technologies, MobileMe, SyncDocs, and GoogleDocs. The reason that there are still five things I need to consider is that it's not just documents that I'm dealing with. Often it is application related data which isn't stored as a convenient standalone file. Applications like Things and SketchBox, as well as all my work related folders are dealt with by SugarSync. I use Evernote to handle my web notes (web pages that I want access to at a later date, and across multiple machines). MobileMe takes care of all my personal data, iCal, Contacts, and data from a few applications like Yojimbo and TextExpander. SyncDocs and GoogleDocs are required to export data from specific iPhone apps, Notebooks and Awesome Notes respectively.

So you see, it's still quite complicated and there is still an unhealthy dependency on the cloud. But I can get around the cloud for most important things should the need arise. Which really brings me back to the original problem. I only need the cloud because I've elected to run my life across a laptop, a netbook, a desktop and an iPhone. Life would be a whole lot easier if I'd stuck to a laptop and a mobile phone that made calls and nothing else. My devotion to technology has brought about a new set of requirements (which could be considered unnecessary) and to meet those requirements I've had to build a complex solution. Why? Because I can...

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