Welcome to the Cloud Era, where data is no longer relegated to your personal PC, but to the ubiquitous and ambiguous “cloud.” This has a number of advantages, but unfortunately, cloud as a technical term has now been soundly abused (as much as “database”) — used to mean everything from a hosted service (formerly known as a “website”) to a redundant cluster of computers meant to provide resilience in the case of localized failure.
Here I present a brief review of a handful of “cloud services,” by which I’m mostly referring to what I’ll call “cloud drives” — in other words, a service which provides synchronization and storage services for files you put in it.
I’ll start with Dropbox, which is arguably the category leader, and a handy reference point by which to judge other entrants. Dropbox provides 2 GB of space free to do with essentially anything you want, has clients for all popular platforms, including Windows, OSX, and Linux, as well as mobile platforms like the iPhone, Android and (of all things) the Blackberry. As with other providers, paid plans increase the storage available and enable use for business.
Aside from the obvious things that one can do with shared storage, Dropbox has a number of features: First, files can be shared publicly, enabling a handy way of sharing a file with somebody using a URL. Second, on mobile platforms, Dropbox will automatically upload pictures taken — and on desktop platforms, screen shots. This is quite handy when combined with the previous ability to publicly share files.
OneDrive is the offering from Microsoft formerly known as SkyDrive and attached to their Live service — and Passport, or what-have-you. OneDrive starts with a lot more storage — 15 GB, and has smaller-increment paid plans than Dropbox. (Smaller leaps in storage for less money.) OneDrive doesn’t support *nix or the Blackberry. OneDrive has the same photo upload and public sharing features as Dropbox.
What OneDrive adds is automatic organization of documents and combination with other Microsoft services, like Office 365, and is built in to newer Windows operating systems. Great if you use a lot of Office or are stuck with a Windows phone, I guess.
Google Drive matches OneDrive’s 15GB storage space, and synchronizes with Google Docs in a fashion somewhat similar to OneDrive — except that Google Docs is free, and documents can be freely edited and collaborated with no other subscriptions or software. Integration with Gmail means that attachments can be added to your drive easily, though it also means that Gmail and Google Drive share the 15GB limit.
Google Drive lacks picture upload capabilities, but can share files publicly.
iCloud Drive is Apple’s offering in Cloud drives, with general file synchronization and storage being a recent development. Its features beyond that are both venerable and (understandably) very Apple-specific, so some of its features, like contact synchronization, are really only useful if you’re already using Apple devices to store your contacts in the first place. Others, like Notes, require a new iCloud email address. It’s available on Windows, IOS8, and (soon) OSX. iCloud Drive comes with 5GB of storage, which is shared with backups of your IOS devices.
While it does have photo features, iCloud lacks the ability to share files publicly.
Astute readers have spotted a trend by now — every place that has their own infrastructure seems to have a cloud drive offering — and yes, Amazon has their own cloud drive offering called Amazon Cloud Drive. If you have a Kindle, you’re no doubt using it already, and you’ll find any personal documents here. It also integrates with Amazon’s cloud player. 5GB is included, which is shared with personal Kindle documents (but not purchased eBooks.)
Amazon’s Cloud Drive has client apps for phones (that can handle phones) but lacks an app for desktop synchronization. Files uploaded to the Amazon Cloud Drive may be shared publicly.
Owncloud is a bit different for a number of reasons, but the biggest one is probably that it’s open source software that you run on your own platform. While this may not be too useful if you don’t have a platform, the easy availability of inexpensive VPSes makes this a relatively inexpensive proposition to set up, and it has some features that other offerings lack. However, it also lacks one critical thing that other cloud drives promise: built in redundancy — so you either need to set up your own, or use it in a way that resilience isn’t critical. Intriguingly, owncloud can use Google Drive for storage, which means its features can be combined with Google Drive’s resilience.
Like other cloud drives, Owncloud has synchronization clients for major platforms. Photos can be uploaded from phones, but not automatically. Owncloud stands out because of the control it provides, its essentially unlimited storage (limited by your platform, of course.) Shared files are automatically versioned, can be password protected, and when deleted, linger for set periods of time. Owncloud can also include document editing capabilities (if installed) and has “apps” which can be loaded on the server to handle contacts, calendars, etc. Contacts, for example, provides a decent web interface, as well as synchronization via carddav.