Leadership, Software Development, Tech Industry, &c

Cloud As Master, Or Cloud As Backup?

Cloud storage is no longer the future; it is the present.  No longer the realm of tech savvy users, nearly everyone today actively uses (not to say depends on) a cloud-based storage service of some sort.

Recently, in the search of a more productivity-oriented second device, I sort of “impulse bought” a Chromebook.  While I wait for it to ship, I’ve been thinking about the way I use cloud storage, and whether I should make any fundamental changes to my working habits to make the most of the new purchase.  You see, I currently use Dropbox, whereas the Chromebook has much better integration with (surprise, surprise) Google Drive.  But productive usage of Google Drive, it seems, hinges on converting all your files to the Google Docs format, seeing as Microsoft Office documents can be read, but not edited.  On closer examination, however, what I initially thought was a document format issue uncovered for me a deeper issue about how we use cloud storage and what this may tell us about the strategies of key providers in this space.

Cloud Storage Usage Patterns

Not all cloud storage users are equal.  Some will use the cloud merely as backup for some sort of official, local copy of their documents (typically their home desktop or laptop).  For them, the cloud storage service provides a convenient, semi-transparent way to back up crucial information, easily access it from other devices, and ensure changes across all devices are synchronized in a consistent way.  This is what I call the “Cloud as Backup” usage pattern, and on closer examination, is exactly how I use cloud storage.  My Dropbox is just a drive I happen to share across all my devices, but the real work doesn’t get done there: it gets done on local copies that I edit on my Windows 8 PC, or my Nexus 4 phone, or my iPad.  Special apps I’ve shelled out cash for are the real stars of the show, enabling me to create and edit content locally on each device, even if afterwards said content gets automatically uploaded and eventually synchronized to the other devices.  In the end, my home PC is my “master copy”: I could wipe out my Dropbox at any time, provided I haven’t made changes on the phone or tablet which I haven’t synced to the PC yet, and still have all of my valuable data at my preferred location.

On the other hand, plenty of users consider their cloud drive as the “master copy” of their data.  They’d rather have any local device wiped (as long as they don’t have pending, un-sync’ed changes there) and trust that the cloud will remain the “golden source”  for their valuable data.  They feel very comfortable trusting their cloud provider and knowing that they can start afresh anywhere as long as they can access their cloud drive.  This is what I call the “Cloud as Master” usage pattern.  This pattern, as we’ll see later, seems better served by apps that allow online editing of the contents stored, but since this is basically a usage pattern I posit that it can be implemented even without such editing capabilities present.

In my opinion, one way is not inherently better than the other.  A purist may argue that only the latter qualifies as properly embracing the cloud, but I think both are valid points of view.  While the cloud is certainly convenient and a lot of what we do today lives there, the Cloud as Backup crowd may be wary of security and privacy issues.  Despite the cloud being here for a while already, and surely it will stay and grow some more, these issues are yet to be conclusively ironed out - and in fact may never will, given that we can no longer chalk them to the novelty of the cloud; they are apparently an intrinsic fact of life in this new computing paradigm.  Cloud as Backup users may also be reluctant to pay for more storage, settling for a free account that will let them stash a subset of essential documents online while relegating the majority of their digital assets to their local “master copy”.

I don’t know for sure which crowd is bigger.  Based on my last assertion about paying for more storage and the statistics I’ve seen for freemium storage services, I’d venture the Cloud as Backup crowd is bigger, but a lot of this actually hinges on perception, convention and usage patterns - things that are hard to measure widely and objectively.  And undeniably, the push seems to be towards more widespread and deeply committed cloud usage, not less.

Patterns, Strategies and Business Models

So what’s this got to do with my Chromebook conundrum?  As I said earlier, I think my problem with dropping Dropbox (pun intended) for something else has less to do with file formats and more to do with the flexibility or demands of different services to be used according to one pattern or the other:

  • Dropbox seems to be quite flexible, in that you may either use it as a master or as a backup.  Right now, however, there are no online editing tools; you rely on local document editing and automatic upload/syncing capabilities.  Because of this, Dropbox may find itself in disadvantage as more users adopt the Cloud as Master usage pattern and place higher value on being able to not only store, but actively edit content on the cloud - which I reckon is the growing trend.  It will be interesting to see how Dropbox reacts to this
  • Google Drive seems a lot more geared towards the Cloud as Master crew.  Despite supporting automated upload and sync on desktop clients, its cloud editing capabilities require converting documents to its native formats, which renders them useless when locally synced.  This translates to tedious import/export procedures in order to unleash the full capability of local editing tools, placing a much higher emphasis on the cloud editing capabilities: it all works better when they are your primary editing method, as opposed to a convenient way to casually edit files in a pinch.  This seems to be reinforced by policies such as not having Google Docs-formatted files count against your storage quota, and having an extensible file type system that allows for “pluggable” file editors - which may in cases do away entirely with the format argument (e.g. Zoho, and picture/video editors such as Picmonkey).  Mind you, I believe Google has the tools to fully support online MS Office document format editing; to me, again, the format is not an end in itself, but a means to ensure cloud dominance for Google
  • SykDrive seems to be taking a balanced approach.  By porting a relevant subset of its Office suite to the Web, Microsoft ensures that Cloud as Master users are properly served, while at the same time catering very well to the Cloud as Backup crowd by not enforcing document conversions from what most of them already use.  One more time, the format itself is just a mechanism, in this case to ensure both cloud uptake and proper transition from the desktop realm that Microsoft has typically commanded into what seems to be its obvious succesor.  I think this balanced approach, combined with sensible privacy policies and relatively generous free quotas, may allow Microsoft to bring onboard a lot of Cloud as Backup users and migrate them to Cloud as Master under Microsoft’s friendly guidance, providing a potentially loyal user base just as the world seems to be undertaking this transition

I haven’t quite made up my mind yet as to how I’m going to tackle my issue. I’m aware that plenty more services and options exist, although I think standard providers more or less fall under these three categories, whereas special inter-cloud syncing services such as CloudHQ and Wappwolf are different beasts altogether.  I surely have a few interesting ways to think about it while my Chromebook finds its way to my door this weekend.