My new (financial) year’s resolution: living in the cloud

David Braue
2 July, 2009
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It’s not the beginning of the calendar year, but it’s the beginning of the new financial year. And, since I’ve already broken all my calendar-year new year’s resolutions, why not start now with a fresh new one?

Well, perhaps ‘resolution’ is too strong a word. But I am a chronic hoarder. And in doing my annual housekeeping – in other words, trying to plow through my bulging inbox and reply to all those emails-I-have-been-meaning to-reply-to-for-ages, and shovelling the papers off my desk into boxes in that desperate exercise known as ‘clearing the decks’ – it recently occurred to me that I really have very little use for email programs.

Blame the smartphone. Ever since I got an email-capable smartphone (my much-loved but recently-ailing BlackBerry) I have been dealing with issues of duplicate emails. That is, the BlackBerry would download messages from my ISP but so would my desktop computer. This required quite a lot of rereading, which is one thing – but when your inbox swells out to over 3000 items, as mine has, you want to be able to delete a message and know that it’s really gone.

My solution has been to finally get around to shifting the duty of managing my emails to Google’s Gmail, which is more than happy to build a huge archive of my email and either let my email client suck it down en masse using the POP standard, or keep the mail on its servers and let me access it using IMAP.

If you’re not familiar with the difference, IMAP basically allows your email client to interact with an email server and only take messages in bits and pieces. This means you don’t have to wait while you download those 5MB photographs your uncle took of his big toe, or the 10 copies of the latest viral video sensation your mates are distributing.

No, IMAP makes email lean and mean: you initially see just the subject line and the first few lines of the mail, and instruct the system to download what you’re really interested in. This is why IMAP has become the logical standard for use on most email-capable phones: it allows you to minimise your bandwidth consumption, which is critical when bandwidth is in short supply, as it is on mobiles.

The biggest benefit of IMAP in a two-device situation, however, is that deleting a message on one device marks it as deleted on Gmail’s server – which, in turn, removes it from any other device too. This puts an end to concurrency issues, allowing me to have just one email inbox that I can access from desktop, smartphone, and Web. I can easily test new email clients – such as Thunderbird, which I am setting up now – and swap between them because the client becomes not a repository for my email, but an interface into my email. The actual email data lives elsewhere.

If you’re doing this already, forgive my enthusiasm over something as pedestrian as a decade-old email standard. The thing is, IMAP was never necessary in an era where people simply downloaded all their mails and turned their email clients into a sort of bloated, difficult filing system. My personal filing system is over 5GB in size, which has made it a little unwieldy when it comes to backups and so on (admittedly, the 50,000-plus deleted and sent messages I keep hanging around may not be helping anything).

This way, however, I can let Google do all the heavy lifting and just get my email wherever I want it, when I want it. IMAP also lets me maintain a folder structure and sort emails into folders; the folders are instantly available to any device that accesses my IMAP mailbox. Critically important emails can be forwarded to a separate account for POP downloading and archiving – and I may do a POP download once a month just to provide a historical record of the emails that actually mattered. But day-to-day correspondence, most of which really doesn’t need to be kept ad infinitum, can simply live in the cloud and disappear without a wisp.

That resolution I mentioned? With this as a first step, I’m determined to slim down by using the cloud wherever practical. For example, I have become a heavy fan of the DropBox syncing software, which lets me easily take stories I’m writing with me when I’m out, but saves me the bother of versioning and copying things to and from USB memory sticks. I’m also a frequent user of the excellent Picnik image-editing software, a great way to do basic cropping, resizing and image editing; I don’t have Photoshop and see no reason to do so until my everyday requirements get more complicated. Even then, a number of new online alternatives are springing up to do the same thing.

There are many hits and misses in this new world of online hosted applications and data, but specific solutions can go a long way towards making your life easier. I’m still a long way from jumping into cloud-hosted solutions like online backup and large-volume photo storage. However, with today’s smartphones making good email possible with a few clicks, I think this is another change to my everyday workflow – like Dropbox – that will stick.

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