Cloudy with a Chance of Work

My grandfather, Papaw, had the kind of tool bench too seldom seen.  Labeled jars with fasteners, outlines of tools on the pegboard where I was supposed to return them, etc.  Papaw was organized and took good care of his tools.  He put a lot of thought into what tool to buy and when he bought it he took care of it.

As an engineer my tools are primarily tied to the computer.  I have competing priorities when it comes to filtering the vast infinitude of cyber opportunities into the tools down to the ones I wish to use.  First, I prefer free.  Second, I prefer easy.  Third, I prefer powerful.  Fourth, I prefer to work “in the cloud.”  Fifth, I want to be platform independent.

Today there are a variety of free resources available on the internet.  I am writing this on one of them, Zoho Writer.  Sadly, being free carries with it certain inherent restrictions.  Seldom will one find proprietary codecs in a free application, for example.  For a long time this was one of the barriers the normal user had to using Linux, a free and open source operating system.

Which leads me to my second criteria: easy.  Until Mint and Jolicloud and their ilk came along, Linux was for the line command commandos.  I still remember my noob frustration at trying to play my mp3’s on my first Ubuntu install.  Not cool.  There are a lot of easy tools out there.  Zoho, Google Docs, and Windows Live Writer to name a few.

Unfortunately, free and easy too often equates to lame.  I can’t just format my paragraphs to end with two line returns in Zoho or Google Docs like I can in Word.  Google Docs spreadsheets require typing in a function to get a hyperlink in a cell.  (Zoho is both easy and powerful on this point.)  There are some free and powerful tools like Gimp, but I’ve been using it for years and I still haven’t scratched the surface.  Office Live is powerful.  Just buy MS Office, take your file offline to edit, then save it back to Live.  Powerful? Yes. But also expensive and cumbersome.

I’ll kind of lump powerful and unlimited together here.  Understandably, free services limit your server space and/or functionality.  Office Live offers more space than most, but then you did shell out for their offline software, remember?  Typically, free storage is limited to between 1 and 5 gigabytes.  Windows Sky Drive gives us way more than that, but you have to upload and download one file at a time so they throttle its usage that way.

About that cloud thing.  It sort of relates to the easy part.  I don’t want my stuff where I have to be on my work computer or my home computer or my wife’s computer to get at it.  Like a two year old, I want what I want when I want it and where I want it.  Wouldn’t it be nice if your baby’s blankie was just available wherever baby was – even if you forgot to pack it along?  If I can do on Zoho the same task I could do in Excel, I’ll do it on Zoho.  Then I won’t need to be in that little office to get the information my clients or technicians want.  Conversely, if someone from church calls me at work and asks if I will notify someone about a change in a meeting’s location, I don’t need to go home and get the contact information.  It is right there in my web email application (which is also synced with my phone).

Similarly, I want my calendars and task lists at home to be the same as the ones at work.  No thumb drive, hard drive, netbook, laptop, desktop, or smartphone can contain everything I want when and where I want it, but the cloud can.  And if it all comes integrated, an address in my calendar or contacts can show up on my map with just the touch or click of a button all the better (remember easy and powerful?).  Zoho does a nice job of integrating across document applications but doesn’t offer integration with maps as far as I know.  Windows Sky Drive holds your picture files from Live Gallery and documents you upload (one at a time) but not your documents from Office Live. Say what?

This integration really gives Google an edge in many areas.  Open any Google web application with your Google id and all of your Google apps are just a click away – no need to log in, import or export information – it is just there.

Our house has had a netbook on Jolicloud, a server on Ubuntu, an HTPC on Windows 7, a netbook and two notebooks on Windows XP, an iPhone and an Android phone.  I want to grab any one of them and access my cloud stuff.  That is what I mean by platform independent.  I don’t even use just one browser.  I used to use Chrome for quickly checking on something because I didn’t want to wait for Firefox to load up all the addons I have on it.  As of yesterday, I have passed the quickie services off to Opera 10.5 which loads even faster.  When I’m hunkering down to do some heavy cyber-lifting however I’ll be on Firefox thank you.  (For those quirky web pages and apps that really want IE eccentricity I use Coral IE Tab.)  Don’t tie your service to one operating system or one hardware platform or one browser and expect it to gain traction in today’s world.

Some related musings . . .

Zoho is great.  I love editing documents there, but where is my iPhone app (their mobile web interface is nice), email (still in beta), RSS Reader, etc.?  It is free, easy, and generally a better editor than Google Docs, but just doesn’t integrate as seamlessly and widely as Google.    If I want to create a spreadsheet with hyperlinks I’ll either create it in Excel or Zoho.

Excel has the additional power of supporting complex macros, but then I’m tied to that machine with MS Office on it, right?  Like Word and PowerPoint and Publisher and Access, I only use Excel when the job at hand demands it.

Picnik is free, easy, in the cloud, and, as a web app, platform independent.  It is nicely integrated with online photo storage services like Flickr, Picasa, Facebook and Photobucket.  Great for a quick pic fix, but not PhotoShop or Gimp.   The same comparisons could be made between the web app mp3Kut which is content with splitting a file one uploads versus the powerful Audacity (which, like Gimp, has a great portable app).

Google is hugely popular for a reason.  It has useful free maps, email, rss reader, search engines, contact management, calendar, task list, chat, etc.  One touch of my Google app on my iPhone or my wife’s android phone and the Google empire lies at my feet.  My experience on any platform will be the same.  Google services may not be overly powerful, but they are easy and convenient.  Their lack of power pushes me to occasionally substitute a portable app for creation which I will then upload to Google docs or store in my Dropbox folder.  Now some of my data crunching macros are pages long and like my HD video productions are developed on desktop applications, some of which I actually paid for!

However it is amazing to me how much of what I do can be done right here – in the cloud.

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