Lost in the clouds? Stuck on the desktop?

a.k.a. (Google) Docs and other files live in the Sky(Drive)

a.k.a. “This looks great! But how do I use it?” (silence)

Back in the 90s, Larry Ellison and others were positing the feasibility of the “Internet Computer” a.k.a. “Network Computer”, based on “thin client” hardware and ubiquitous network access to servers and services. Though impractical then, computing along those lines is (becoming) practical today.

For those with sufficient  motivation, Google Documents (a.k.a. “Docs”) and (Microsoft) SkyDrive provide enticing capabilities.

One motivation is sharing files almost as if the people sharing the files are in the same location, using a conventional file server, even though the people are actually separated by significant distances. I’ve been exploring two scenarios, one city-wide and the other international.

Both Docs and SkyDrive operate along those lines but necessarily attempt to integrate with local “desktop” computing (quite possibly on a portable notebook or netbook) via a web browser. Both succeed and fail,  in different ways, with some of the failures likely by design intent.

For example, SkyDrive doesn’t reasonably permit in-place editing of a document, but rather expects documents to be uploaded/downloaded. Likely Microsoft is trying to protect sales of Office, but likely also waiting until support for in-place editing has been sufficiently well developed.

Less explicably, Docs limits file formats to three application surrogates for the Office core, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, plus non-editable PDFs. The in-place editing capabilities are likely more than enough for many users, but not seriously competitive with the full capabilities of the Office (or OpenOffice, etc.) applications.

Docs (though in seemingly perpetual “beta”, like GMail) has been around longer and seems easier to learn, mostly because it requires relatively little interaction with the traditional desktop environment, compared to SkyDrive. So in choosing whether to try to use Docs or SkyDrive one of the first questions is whether or not the limited file formats of Docs are sufficient. Also, though Docs may be easier to learn than SkyDrive, switching one’s thinking from desktop computing to Docs does require effort, and I’ve struggled to get others to expend that effort.

If those four Docs formats are not sufficient, then SkyDrive seems the best available option. The usage model is different from what most people are used to, and requires substantial interaction with the existing desktop environment, so SkyDrive is not easy to learn. But compared to the problems of carrying USB sticks from computer to computer and/or sending USB sticks in postal mail, there is much to motivate the learning.

Sometime this year, Google may provide another option, GDrive. For now, I’m encouraging people to give SkyDrive a try.

Some more related reading:

Watch out Google Docs – Microsoft SkyDrive is Coming

SkyDrive, Google Docs, Office Live Workspaces – Compared (suspense music…)

From SkyDrive to Google Docs

Yahoo drops its Briefcase

Cloud Storage’s Killer App… Geographic Collaboration


Google Drive as an Organizational Document Management System: an NTEN Case Study

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