Dapeng Li

Hungry, foolish and passionate – yet another software developer.

Beauty in the Cloud – some cloud services to make your life better

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In this post I’m going to recommend some of the cloud services I found very important in my everyday work and life, hope they can be useful to you and make your life better as well.

Introducing Cloud Services

The definition of cloud computing is still being debated in the computer industry. I will use a simple definition for cloud service here, that is, your data is stored on the remote servers (cloud), you can access your data from almost everywhere – from client software on your computer, your cell phone, your tablet or a browser on your Netbook. In my point of view, this “access-everywhere” feature is huge – with the ubiquitous Internet and the emerging of more kinds of smart devices – and will change our workflow for the good.

Q: What is different in “cloud services” comparing to the traditional software we installed on our device (computer, cell phone, etc.)?

A: Your data in most traditional software is stored and utilized only on one device. With cloud services:

  1. Your data is accessible from everywhere. With your data in a centralized place (cloud), you can access it from any device as long as Internet connection is available.
  2. Your data is synchronized across all your devices. For example, I would like to write a Blog post in the next couple of days. I first create a document, add some initial thoughts and upload to the cloud from my home computer; on my way to work on the bus, I come up with some new ideas for the post, I pull out my cell phone, my phone first downloads the latest version of the document, then I add my new content, upon finishing, my phone uploads my changes to the cloud; when I’m back home and open the document, I can pick up what I left off.
  3. Your data is secure. When the major copy is in the cloud, you don’t have to worry about your computer on fire (from a data protection perspective) or hard drive stops working, in case that happened, pick up a new device and you’re ready to go.

Q: What is different in “cloud services” from traditional web applications?

A: In my opinion, not much. They both depend on the Internet and server side execution, but cloud services let you in solid charge of your data, and access it whenever and wherever you want.

The Services

Here’re some of the services I’m using every day, and can barely live without.

Dropbox

Dropbox is built upon a simple idea, imagine you have a box in the cloud, everything you dropped in that box will be accessible and synchronized from all your devices.
Dropbox provides client software for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, BlackBerry… Each device will have its local copy and the software will handle the synchronization.

My usage: Store books I would like to read, avatar for my online profile, files for some projects I have on hand.

Sample scenario: I download a book from my home PC and drop it into my Dropbox, while I’m away from home with my Netbook, it will automatically download that book and I can start reading.

Pricing: Free with 2G storage.

Evernote

Evernote

The power of Evernote lies in making notes (surprise!) – with rich text, web clips, images, attachments. What’s better, when you search text in your notes, Evernote will also search in the text in the images. Similar to Dropbox, you can utilize Evernote’s client software on major platforms.

My usage: Project based notes, book notes and information gathered on the Internet.

Sample scenario: I’m planning a travel for this weekend, on my home PC I download some articles and images from the Internet, then add them to my Evernote. While I’m out the weekend, I can view my notes from my cell phone and tablet, and search with keywords in my notes.

Pricing: Free with 60M storage per month (incremental, every month you get up to 60M).

Box.net

Box.net

Similar to Dropbox, but Box.net is more focused on collaboration. You can upload files to your Box.net account and invite other people to view/update them.

My usage: Share e-books, audio books, documents.

Sample scenario: I want to share some of free e-books and documents with friends, I would like them to be able to contribute, so we can share a collection. I create a new folder in my Box.net, invite my friends as collaborators, then they can access those files; whenever updates are made in that collection, Box.net will notify other collaborators by email.

Pricing: Free with 5G storage, individual file no larger than 25M.

Windows Live Mesh

Windows Live Mesh

Live Mesh is part of Windows Live Essentials. It provides similar features as Dropbox – you have an online storage and software to keep clients in sync. Instead of having a central box (folder), you can choose folders from anywhere on your hard drive. Since Live Mesh is a product by Microsoft, it’s not surprising to see it can also sync your bookmarks in Internet Explorer, Outlook signatures and even allow remote desktop between PCs in your Live Mesh collection.

My usage: Sync documents for work between various computers, can also be very helpful when I need to transfer my data to a new computer.

Sample scenario#1: I have a work laptop and some machines I have access at work, I would like my documents of the latest project be accessible from all of them, so I setup Live Mesh on each of them, then whenever I made change to my documents, all of them will be synchronized.
Sample scenario#2: I just applied for a new laptop and need to transfer all my documents from my old computer to the new one, I can just install Live Mesh on the new computer and enable IE and Office Sync, then my new laptop is half-way ready.

Pricing: Free with 5G storage per Windows Live ID.

Note: Not all types of file can be synchronized in Live Mesh, for example, pst (Outlook data file) cannot be synced.

Windows Live SkyDrive

Windows Live SkyDrive

SkyDrive is part of Windows Live family. It simply provides 25G of free online storage.

My usage: Store photos.

Sample scenario: I have my photo collection from the recent trip ready, I opened Windows Live Photo Gallery and uploaded my new photos to my SkyDrive.

Pricing: Free with 25G storage per Windows Live ID, individual file no larger than 50M.

There’s another similar service named Live Sync provided by Microsoft, here’s a very good article from labnol.org comparing it with Live Mesh and Live SkyDrive.

Instapaper

Instapaper

Are there moments you found a good article online (opened in your browser), but couldn’t finish it because of limited time? With Instapaper, you can add an Instapaper bookmarklet (a bookmark) to your browser, then when you stumble upon an article like this, click that bookmarklet, and Instapaper will save that article to your collection. Later, when you got time, you can open Instapaper (in your browser or mobile device) to view all your bookmarked articles. Here’s something better – Instapaper can display a clean text version of the article (thus more readable) and remember where you left off last time.

Pricing: Free

There’s a very good post from Scott Hanselman on Instapaper and I highly recommend you to check it out.

Google Bookmarks

Google Bookmarks

Google Booksmarks are your bookmarks in the cloud. You can bookmark pages and view your bookmark collection from every browser. The beauty of this service is, when you search in Google, matching results from your bookmark collection will be shown at the top.

Pricing: Free

Tip of the Iceberg

A lot of other interesting cloud services are out there, and I’m just scratching the surface. I haven’t got a chance to try out cloud music (such as Amazon Cloud Player), cloud backup (Mozy, CrashPlan), etc.

Hope you have found some helpful services (or at least be aware of the cloud services) from this post. If you are using some cool cloud services not listed here, please let me know!

[Disclosure] In writing this post, I used Evernote as my writepad and edited my notes from my PC, cell phone and tablet; I collected images from Internet then shared them in my Dropbox between multiple computers. 🙂

[Update Jan 2012] I subscribed to Apple’s iTunes Match, so far the experience had been awesome.

Written by Dapeng

May 10th, 2011 at 8:25 pm

  • Fiona

    Just one question, how can we access it from any device even if the connection is ungelivable, since network environment, especially the speed, varies a lot.
    BTW, Google will post it “cloud music”very soon, just dealing with the copyright task at the moment:)

    • I think it will be easier for mobile devices to access the Internet in the future.

      Network speed aside. It’s a big shame that some people live in a country where a lot of creative services on the Internet are blocked.

      Let’s positively focus on what we have, and abandon those knock-offs.

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