The promise of personal cloud computing has almost been realized, as personal and business users across all platforms are slowly starting to ascend to the cloud.
When discussing cloud computing on any level, it's important to understand just what kind of cloud you're talking about. Essentially, for single users, cloud use comes in two categories: online storage and online applications.
Online applications come in all shapes and sizes: from the Flash-based games your kids are playing to the full-bore office productivity apps found in Google Docs and Office Live. As Internet connectivity improves and more web-enabled applications are developed, it's not hard to imagine a future where the platform is the browser, no matter what the operating system might be.
As cloud applications mature, the benefits of cloud storage are available now. Online storage providers are all over the Internet, offering different capacities at different pricing plans. The good news is, if you look carefully, you can find safe, reliable storage for the best price of all: free.
Making Sense of the Microsoft Mess
It make sense that Microsoft, makers of the Windows operating system, offers its users an online storage plan. What doesn't make sense--at first glance--is that Microsoft seems to have three different online storage plans--Windows Live Sync, Windows Live SkyDrive, and Live Mesh--which don't seem to work together.
So which one is best? In reality, while these services can overlap with each other in terms of functionality, they do have differing purposes.
Windows Live Sync is a Windows or OS X client that enables users to sync files between two or more machines, and share them with authorized users. This is not really cloud storage, so much as peer-to-peer syncing between computers.
Windows Live SkyDrive falls in line with what you think cloud storage should be. Registered Windows Live members can save up to 25Gb of files online, free of charge. The only limitation is that no file can be larger than 50Mb. Better yet, the storage exists for users of any platform, so Linux and OS X users can make use of this space, too. If, that is, they can get over the mental hurdle of actually tapping Microsoft as a service provider.
Live Mesh is a combination of both of these services, plus a little extra. There's online storage (but only 5Gb), synchronization and sharing of files between any computer specified on the network (both yours and invited Live members), and remote desktop functionality. This is cross-platform, too: Windows and OS X users can use all of Mesh's toolset, and Linux users can access the online folders -- though active synchronization and remote desktop tools are unavailable.
If you are looking for full-on synchronization of your files, then right now Live Mesh is the way to go, because it enables file and folder syncing across all of your Windows and OS X machines, plus throws in 5Gb of extra storage space, all for free. The capacity isn't a lot, but if you have other platforms, you can use the storage area as a way to manually get files from one machine to another, especially if you're using Linux or Solaris.
Storage seekers will appreciate SkyDrive. It's not active syncing--it's still uploading and downloading--but 25Gb is a nice piece of free real estate on the storage landscape.
Other Storage Units In the Internet Warehouse District
There are, of course, other storage clouds out on the great wide Internet. Third-party cloud providers are popping up all over the place, offering a wide variety of capacity/pricing plans. Here's a round up of how each one stacks up in terms of cost, size, and operating system compatibility.
Google Drive--But Don't Call It That
Ever since Google tossed out then-unheard of amounts of free storage for its Gmail users, consumers have been clamoring for more storage from the search engine giant. In the mid 2000s, this culminated in rumors of the Gdrive, where Google would let users store any file online. Alas, the Gdrive never really came to pass. Users could store some documents online, though only those compatible with Google Docs.
Then, in late 2009, Google let it be known that any file could be uploaded and stored through Google Docs. So, not just documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, but any file 1Gb or smaller. This applies to any platform, so anyone with a browser can participate.
Google doesn't want to call it the Gdrive, Google Drive, or any other such label, which leads analysts to wonder if they won't be expanding to a more detached storage plan later.
Other evidence for this is the amount of free space offered: a mere 1Gb. Compared to other services, indeed, even Gmail, this is a bit paltry.
Google's pricing starts low, too. It runs from $5/year for 20Gb to $50/year for 200Gb to $256/year for 1Tb of storage. Got serious storage needs? You can even jump up to 16Tb of online storage for $4,096 annually.
Clearly, Google's looking at storage as a revenue generator for their company. Which makes sense, because the 8Gb of Gmail storage is the loss leader, since ads show up in Gmail, and not Google Docs. When considering other free offerings -- especially Live SkyDrive's 25Gb -- Google may not see a lot of customers for their storage business until they rework their pricing plans.
Apple MobileMe: Pretty, But Expensive
Apple is all about controling the customer experience. Always.
Once you get that, you will understand the approach to MobileMe, a file storage/syncing offering that also syncs messages and calendar information for $99/year. This is a very rich tool that really does a good job seamlessly syncing between Macs, Windows PCs, and iPhones. Like most Macs and OS X, it's pretty and slick.
But looks aren't everything. If you choose to participate in MobileMe, you'll only get 20Gb storage (shared with files and e-mail) and, interestingly, a 200Gb/month data transfer limit. A transfer limit like that should not really affect anyone, but it's curious that Apple feels the need to even specify it. If you want more, you can upgrade to the family pack for $149/year, which still gets you 20Gb of space, but with four e-mail accounts, each with an additional 5Gb storage.
If you are a devoted Mac user, this might make sense, but even then, your money is better spent on Google, where you could get 10 times the space for half the cost or, again, the SkyDrive option where 25Gb is free.
Ubuntu One Not For All Yet
Linux users should not feel too left out; there's a dedicated personal cloud service for them, too. Canonical, the makers of the Ubuntu distribution, has the Ubuntu One service, which offers file, contacts, and message syncing for users of Ubuntu and ... apparently no one else. Not even other Linux users.
That sort of limitation is really very odd coming from an open source company, though apparently plans are in the works to port the Ubuntu One client to Fedora, another popular Linux distribution, as well as Windows and OS X. Still, unless Canonical can shift to cross-platform soon, they may be too late to the party.
If you are an Ubuntu user, you will get pretty seamless file, messaging, and contact synchronization, as promised, and 2Gb of free storage. There's even syncing for Tomboy, a sticky-note app. This kind of integration is really needed in the Linux operating system, and Ubuntu One has definitely set that bar for this platform.
If you want more storage, though, be prepared to pay -- a lot. 50Gb of space goes for $10/month, or $120/year. Not as expensive as Apple, but close. Certainly more than Google's price structure.
It would be great to see a service like Ubuntu One take off, but right now it's holding itself back as a cross-platform solution.
Not a DropBox in Bucket
DropBox is pure file sharing. No fancy-schmancy messaging or app integration here.
This cross-platform service nicely integrates with your operating system's existing file manager. After the client app is installed, you don't need to use a browser interface to use DropBox, just the DropBox folder in your file manager. The app works well with Windows, OS X, and Linux using the GNOME interface (KDE users can still use DropBox, but it's buggy; the browser interface is recommended).
All users of DropBox get 2Gb free right off the bat, plus another 250Mb if they complete the sign-up process. From there, things get pricey. $99/year will get you 50Gb capacity, and $199/year 100Gb. Again, a little better than Apple and Ubuntu, but far more expensive than Google.
The deep integration is very useful, but likely not enough to justify the price tag for big storage needs.
If you are looking at storage from purely a fiscal vantage point, the clear winner in the free storage category right now is Windows Live SkyDrive. 25Gb of free storage far exceeds any other offering. The only problem is that the storage does not scale. You can not get more online storage from them even if you were willing to pay for it.
In terms of scaling for cost, Google Docs offers the best value for the buck. Its pricing structure is superior to any of the other offerings here, as is the scalability. Unfortunately, the storage is mired in the kludgy Google Docs interface that makes file management almost painful.
If you are not looking for a lot of storage, then Ubuntu One and DropBox are superior interfaces for their respective operating systems and well worth looking into.
As storage becomes cheaper and the market more crowded with storage vendors, expect all of these offerings to either come down in price or go up in capacity. Like real clouds, this is one area that will be constantly changing.