Google Drive: A step closer to no-fuss cloud storage?

April 25, 2012

If you have even remotely been paying attention to the world of technology, you’ve been hearing a lot about the “cloud” lately. Yes, the cloud: where all your dreams of no-muss, no-fuss, readily available digital storage and services become reality. The next great thing that will keep all your devices in sync. The place in the not-so-distant future where all your data will be held. Redundant. In perpetuity. Safe from coffee spills, drops and that weird clicking noise a traditional hard drive makes, signaling that all your saved memories are about to be wiped from existence.

And of course, it will be available for a low, low price.

All joking aside, cloud storage and cloud-based services that store your documents, photos and videos on remote servers are massively important to the future of your technological life. That shift was obvious this week as Google loudly introduced its version of the off-site hard disk, dubbed Google Drive.

Google Drive is rather simple: Similar to services such as Dropbox, Microsoft’s SkyDrive and Apple’s iCloud, Drive parks your data on Google’s servers. As with those other services, you can buy storage in tiers (starting with 5 GB free and climbing to a whopping 16 TB — that’s 16,000 GB). If you want to add storage, prices rise incrementally: 100 GB is a relatively affordable $4.99 a month, while something more substantial such as 1 TB costs $49.99 per month. You can change your plan anytime.

Google Drive allows you to access your files through your browser and provides a dedicated application for your PC or Mac that gives you a special folder that syncs files between Google’s Drive and your local drive. Dropbox and SkyDrive function basically the same way; iCloud doesn’t really allow you to sync individual files. Rather, it syncs all the media on a device back and forth from the hardware in your hands to the cloud.

The hook with Drive is that it integrates the rest of Google’s document handling and editing services. That means your Google Docs page is now replaced with Drive, and files can be manipulated on the Web once you’ve synced them. (In fact, “Google Docs” no longer exists in the company’s vocabulary.)

That’s nice when you’re in a browser, but, unfortunately, it’s a bit of a one-way street. Google’s file formats are incompatible with Mac- and PC-based document editing apps, which means the only way to work on those pieces of content is within your browser.

Google does provide a way to edit those files even if you’re offline, but the process for adding the functionality is rather clunky and requires using Google Chrome. That’s not a problem for me, but there are lots of users out there and lots of browsers, so a more universal solution would be helpful.

In the case of Dropbox, Box and many other competitors, the file formats you store on your cloud drive are no different than the ones on your computer, hence the easier transition.

Another way Drive stumbles a little bit is with the management of multimedia files, such as video and audio. With other services, the files, once synced, are available to watch or listen to via real-time streaming. Google requires that, on a mobile device, the files be fully downloaded. In the browser, you’re able eventually watch your videos in a YouTube-like streaming window, though that requires processing time, but audio weirdly still needs to be fully downloaded. For Web pioneers, something feels a little off about that.

There are other issues, including that Drive doesn’t yet have an iOS client, whereas most other services (even Microsoft’s SkyDrive) have some Apple-compatible mobile apps.

Also, you have to be comfortable with handing over access to your personal files to use a service such as this. I’m fairly certain Google doesn’t care what kind of “Twilight” fan fiction I’ve written (it’s good, I swear). But other users might not feel totally at ease with the idea of their files residing on someone else’s hard drive, especially given the recent privacy investigations by the United States and other governments into some of the companies that are offering cloud services.

The future is going to be tough for those guys.

Small quirks aside, Drive is a really smart, well-integrated service that will be appealing to current Google Docs and Gmail aficionados as well as people looking for a simple solution for keeping their data safe and synced across devices. The pricing is more than competitive with other services. The speed of the service and ease of use are outstanding. And promises from Google to continue to add and tweak features of Drive are encouraging.

One way or another, you’re going to get sucked into the cloud storage revolution. Why not just start right now?

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (theverge.com), a technology news Web site. For previous columns, go to PostBusiness.com.

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