Sunday, 23 June 2013

App Spotlight, Episode 3 - Dropbox (cloud storage)

Smartphones and tablets have really come a long way. They are now highly capable of performing almost every task the average consumer would use them for. Taking and viewing pictures, writing and editing documents, recording and watching videos, all can be done without a hitch. I view smartphones and tablets as more of an extension of our computers. Things we would usually do exclusively on our computers can now also be done on our mobile devices. While this is a great convenience for people who are always on the move and aren't always in front of their computers, it does pose another problem; file management. With so many different devices, how do we manage all our files? Do we constantly need to be plugging in our phones and tablets to our computers to copy and paste files? Do we need to email ourselves a document from our work computer so we can access it at home? What if we leave the house having forgotten to transfer a document into our tablet that we needed for work? We could have gone for vacation and taken hundreds of photos on our phone, but we won't be able to view them in greater detail on our computer until we transfer them manually. Or if we recorded videos on that vacation and wanted to edit them into a nice highlight reel using our computer to upload to Facebook, we would again need to connect our phone to our computer to transfer the files. There should be an easier way to manage all our files on these different devices. Luckily, their is. Dropbox is probably the most popular and most used cloud storage service across all platforms, and if you don't use it, you probably should.

If you don't use Dropbox (or any other cloud storage service), there's a good chance you aren't sure what it is. So let's start from the beginning. Dropbox like any other similar service, is a cloud storage service. Cloud storage in simplest terms, is online storage. Similar to how we store data in our laptops, in our phones, thumb drives and external hard disks, we can also store data in online storage space, called a cloud. The difference is that while data is stored locally on our laptops and phones (meaning the data is physically in our device), data stored in the cloud is stored in servers, not locally in any of our devices. There are pros and cons to cloud storage as I'm sure you can figure out for yourself, but in case you can't, lets take a look at some of them now. First, the pros.

One storage space for all your devices
Without cloud storage, we will be reliant on multiple storage locations. We have of course, our desktop/laptop. We also have our mobile devices, like our phones and tablets. Then we have the portable storage options, like external hard disks and thumb drives. We could have some files in our computer, some images on our phones, some documents in our tablet, some videos in our external hard disk etc. Managing the various files in various locations can get a bit overwhelming at times. What cloud storage does, is offer us just one place to store our data, which can be accessed from any of our devices. By storing data in one place (the cloud), we can access it easily from our computer, our phones or our tablets. We can save pictures from our vacation in the cloud, and view them on our laptop, or show them to friends on our phone when we meet them. We can save work documents from our work computer into the cloud, and have immediate access to them from our computer at home. We can record video using our phones, save the raw videos in the cloud, and access them from our computer later when we want to edit them. Being able to access all our data from the cloud (i.e., without needing to transfer data) leads to our next point.
Dropbox integrates seamlessly into Windows on your computer.
No more cables
In the past, the common way to transfer data between devices was via USB cable, or microSD card. But this of course meant you needed to carry a cable around with you, or a memory card adapter. You also needed both devices with you. You could also e-mail yourself the file. But you would have to do one of the above everytime you wanted to transfer a file, and that could get tedious. I've had several friends borrow my USB cable because they wanted to transfer a file from their laptop to their phone. Bluetooth is a wireless solution, but similarly to using cables, both devices need to be near each other in order to work, and again, you need to manually transfer files each and every time. Not to mention the initial pairing that needs to be done. Having storage online solves each of these problems; no more cables (or adapters), and you don't need your devices to be near each other in order to access your data from different devices. Once you upload a file, it will automatically sync across all your devices, and it will be readily accessible from any of them, without needing to connect cables or perform bluetooth pairing.

Data backup
The most important thing we need to worry about when it comes to our data. Especially if you are a student or working, your files are basically your most valuable asset. To a student, the files could be lecture notes, assignments or reports. For working adults, project proposals, financial records, or monthly activity reports. Losing data thanks to malfunctioning computers can be extremely stressful. Sometimes losing a laptop is not as painful as losing the data that was on the laptop. We can of course backup our data in external drives, but external drives are also prone to damage and theft/loss. Backing up data to the cloud is a safer solution. Losing a device won't mean losing your data, and the servers that they are stored on are much less likely to suffer from hardware malfunction.
A scenario I'm sure many of us are familiar with. Image: Russ Bellew
Sharing data
One of the main advantages Dropbox has over conventional data storage/transfer methods is the ability to share storage with other people. This also means that we can easily share data with others as well. Users can share folders with each other, and any files stored in those shared folders can be accessed by all users who are linked to that folder. This makes sharing photos with family and friends and sharing documents with colleagues much easier than having to e-mail a copy of each file to everyone. And definitely much easier than copying into several thumb drives.

File hosting
One last advantage of using Dropbox is file hosting. What this means is that we can store any file we like in a public folder, and share it with anyone on the web via a link that will be generated by Dropbox. Graphic designers can host wallpapers on Dropbox and share a link with anyone who wishes to download and use them. You could write out a recipe and store it in Dropbox, and later share it with strangers in a forum. You could also write manuals or tutorials for various things and host it in Dropbox for others to download. It's an extension of the previous point and really showcases how interactive we can be with others who share similar interests with us.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to using Dropbox. Being an online storage service is both a blessing and a curse. No internet connection means no way to access our files. This is the most obvious disadvantage compared to locally stored files which can be accessed without an internet connection. Another disadvantage is price. Dropbox is free to use, but we are only given 2GB of free storage space. Some companies have made agreements with Dropbox to offer more storage to buyers of their products. I was given 25GB free for two years when I bought my HTC One X for example. But for other users, 100GB will cost $9.99/month (or $99/year), 200GB will cost $19.99/month ($199/year) and 500GB costs $49.99/month ($499/year). Whether that is cheap or not is up to the individual of course. Privacy and security of user data is another concern, but to my knowledge there hasn't been any major security breaches (if any) concerning Dropbox's servers. 
Probably the biggest obstacle of cloud storage.
If you want to try out cloud storage but don't like the storage space Dropbox offers you can try other services. There are other cloud storage services out there like SkyDrive and Copy, and they work similarly to Dropbox as far as I know. This post was as much a promotion of cloud storage as it was a promotion of Dropbox. Technology is moving forward at a rapid pace and we need to keep up with all the tools at our disposal. With smartphones and tablets becoming more affordable and common in every household, cloud storage will really be an essential tool moving forward.