Life in the cloud

Adam Turner
25 February, 2015
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Cloud computing, feature, macworld australiaWhether you’re working on an urgent report or just sitting back playing your favourite games, the future of computing lies in the cloud.

There was a time when all your precious data resided on a physical disc in your hand or else tucked away on your hard drive. These days it’s more likely to reside in the ‘cloud’ – the trendy name for online servers hidden away in giant data centres.

The shift to the cloud has freed us from the shackles of the physical world – letting you access your digital belongings anywhere, anytime and on any device. It’s also creating new business models and redefining the concept of ownership in the digital age.

Apple has gradually embraced the cloud, but it certainly isn’t leading the way – Cupertino’s approach to new areas is usually to sit back and see how a new technology pans out before jumping in with a slick offering. A look around the internet reveals a diverse range of online services that paint a broad picture of what the cloud may look like over the next few years.

 

STORAGE/BACKUP

There’s no shortage of cloud storage services offering to look after your important files for a few dollars per month. The high-profile players are slowly becoming more generous and unlimited storage seems to be the way of the future.

Microsoft recently offered unlimited OneDrive storage to Office 365 subscribers and you’ll get the same deal with a Google Apps Unlimited subscription. Others will also dangle the carrot of unlimited online storage as an incentive to sign up for various cloud services.

Cloud storage services are divided into two key categories – sync/share and backup – but they’re converging to offer the convenience of an all-in-one cloud storage solution.

Sync and share-focused services like Dropbox and Google Drive are built around the idea of ensuring that your files are easily available from any device and can be shared with your friends and colleagues with a click. They provide a form of online backup, but it’s not their primary focus. Their desktop backup software is still rudimentary compared to dedicated backup-focused services, which grant you much greater control over exactly what you back up and how often your backups run.

That said, backup-centric services like Mozy and Carbonite have been forced to add the ability to sync files between devices, in order to stave off competition from the likes of Dropbox, Apple, Google and OneDrive.

Jungle Disk is another backup service that has embraced the push for sync features and its alternative pricing model may offer a glimpse into the future. Rather than run its own data centre, Jungle Disk lets its users store their files in the enterprise-grade Rackspace and Amazon S3 data centres – charging a few cents per month per gigabyte of storage. Depending on what you’re backing up and how many devices you need to protect, this can work out to be more cost-effective than some flat-rate storage services.

If you’re using your online storage space as an archive rather than as emergency backup, Amazon Glacier becomes more attractive. It’s much cheaper per gigabyte than Amazon S3, but the trade-off is that it takes much longer to recover your files. Amazon Glacier isn’t practical for important data you need back in a hurry, in order to get up and running quickly after a disaster. It’s more practical for large data sets such as your photo and home movie libraries, which you generally don’t need to get back immediately as long as you know they’re safe.

The other limiting factor with online storage services is the cost of mobile data. As this continues to fall, it will become practical for more people to back up photos and even videos to the cloud from their mobile devices while on the road.

 

OFFICE/COLLABORATION

The convenience of browser-based Office suites has been winning people away from traditional desktop software for several years. The future will bring tighter integration between online office suites and storage services, along with seamless transitioning between desktop, mobile and cloud apps.

Online storage king Dropbox recently signed an agreement with Microsoft to make it easy to edit Dropbox files via Microsoft’s apps. Without this, Dropbox is in danger of being pushed aside in the race between Microsoft, Google, Apple and business-focused Box to offer a seamless online workspace. Meanwhile Google offers a Chrome extension that opens cloud documents using desktop apps.

Dropbox makes it easy to share files with others.

 

Apple has also overhauled its cloud storage, but it’s Microsoft that leads the way in terms of tight integration and cross-platform support.

Within Microsoft’s Office 365 ecosystem you can create an Office file on your computer, save it in the OneDrive folder and automatically upload it to the cloud. The OneDrive folder integrates into the Finder and you can store any kind of file in there, knowing it will be automatically backed up online.

Alternatively, you can create an Office file online in OneDrive, and have a full copy automatically downloaded to a folder on your computer. Changes made to the file in the cloud are automatically downloaded, and you can collaborate on documents in real time. Meanwhile changes to the file on your desktop are automatically uploaded – even changes made using non-Microsoft software like OpenOffice.

Microsoft also offers slick mobile Office apps for iOS, Android and Windows Phones. You can access any file from any device and there’s no need to import, export or convert files so the formatting is preserved.

Sync your documents across devices with OneDrive.

 

Neither Apple nor Google can completely match the flexibility of Microsoft’s OneDrive. It’s likely they never will because they’re more interested in keeping you within their own ecosystem. Microsoft’s strong Office 365 push is making the subscription service more attractive to Apple and Android users and it will be interesting to see if Apple and Google concede and embrace the broader compatibility of Office 365.

Apple’s Handoff features, built into OS X Yosemite and iOS, enable users to continue working from a different device.

 

The cloud giants will also take on key players in other areas, like the popular Evernote online notes service. Microsoft’s OneNote has taken aim at Evernote this year, while there are plans to tightly integrate Google Keep into Google Drive. Apple’s Notes app syncs with iCloud, but is rather basic in comparison – it’s an area to keep an eye on.

Apple is innovating in other ways, with new features such as Handoff, which lets you pick up where you left off when switching between devices, and Continuity, which blurs the line between your Mac and your iPhone. With the growing focus on seamless mobility, you can expect Apple’s competitors to be watching these features closely.

 

PHOTOS

It’s easy to dump all your photos into any online storage service, but some are especially targeted at photographers and make it easy to access your favourite images from any device and share them with the world. They’re likely to remain specialist services, with your average happy snapper either satisfied sharing their pics via Facebook and Instagram or else preferring the privacy of locking away their photos in closed services like iCloud Photo Library.

Photo-centric cloud services like Flickr and Photobucket rose to meet the needs of photographers and still tend to lead the big names in cloud storage when it comes to advanced photo-handling features. Google’s Picasa photo editing software and tight integration with Picasa Web Albums is one of the best options you’ll find from the major cloud players for maintaining a public photo gallery.

Dropbox has dipped its toe in the water with Carousel, but the other big names in cloud storage have a growing focus on privacy and closed galleries, catering to the backlash against Facebook-esque over- sharing.

There are two key aspects to working with images in the cloud. The first is uploading your photos and automatically syncing them across your various devices. The second is creating online galleries and sharing them strategically.

Still in beta form, iCloud Photo Library stores all photos and videos from your devices in one place.

 

Apple has the first aspect covered with Photo Stream, which automatically uploads photos from your iGadgets to iCloud and syncs them to your other iGadgets, Macs, PCs and Apple TV. This isn’t a true online backup service, as photos in My Photo Stream are only saved in iCloud for 30 days.

Photos on your iGadgets can also be backed up to iCloud, but this is where Apple’s relatively expensive online storage can cause trouble. You only get 5GB of free iCloud storage with an Apple account and if your iGadget fills this with photos, then it stops backing up to iCloud completely. Now your other files are at risk because iOS is not smart enough to prioritise documents over photos even if there’s some spare room in your iCloud account.

If you don’t want to pay for extra iCloud storage, then an alternative is to disable iCloud photo backups and back them up elsewhere. Apart from your Mac, you may copy them to a Network Attached Storage drive using apps like PhotoSync and FileExplorer. Alternatively, apps like Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive and Amazon Cloud Services are designed to automatically upload your Camera Roll to the cloud, but they don’t always run in the background as seamlessly as they should.

When it comes to creating private photo galleries, Apple is still finding its feet with iCloud Photo Library Beta. Apple has only recently added the ability to upload photos taken with other cameras and stored on your computer, rather than just photos taken with your iGadgets.
This year should see the release of the Photos for Mac app, with native support for iCloud Photo Library, as iPhoto and Aperture are discontinued.

 

MUSIC

The cloud isn’t just for storing and sharing your own content; it’s also for tapping into a world of entertainment. The on-demand nature of the cloud has seen the rise of all- you-can-eat subscription music and video services – which seem to be the way of the future even if Apple is dragging its feet.

For a monthly fee, Spotify lets users stream music from an extensive range.

Subscription services are considered by many to be the content industry’s best weapon against piracy. They were a long time coming, but Australia has finally seen an explosion of subscription music services, which put millions of tracks at your fingertips for around $10 per month. Options include Spotify, Rdio, Deezer, JB Hi-Fi NOW, Google Play Music All Access, Sony Music Unlimited and Xbox Music Pass.

Along with a large music library, you’ve also got the convenience of easily jumping between devices and resuming playback. Unfortunately, the vast music back catalogues still have gaping holes due to rights deals – some artists have flexed their muscles to keep their music off subscription services – but the situation is slowly improving.

Apple is the odd one out with the lack of a Spotify-style subscription music service, likely because it makes so much money from selling music. iTunes Match only lets you stream music that you already own. Meanwhile iTunes Radio is more like Pandora than Spotify, letting you create genre-based stations rather than listen to specific albums from start to end.

Apple has banished optical drives from Macs in an effort to nudge more people towards digital music downloads, but there’s life left in music CDs for a few years yet. As Australian broadband gradually becomes faster, cheaper and more reliable, the eventual demise of the optical disc maybe well come at the hands of subscription streaming services like Spotify rather than download services like iTunes.

 

VIDEO

Subscription video is the next big frontier in Australia, with foreign giants like Netflix preparing to do battle with Quickflix, Foxtel and new players like Nine’s Stan.

Just like their music equivalents, these subscription video services offer access to a vast library of movies and TV shows for around $10 per month. Unfortunately, the holes in the back catalogues are even more significant than the holes in the music libraries, partly due to rights deals and partly due to the delays between when content is first broadcast or shown in the cinema, when it goes on sale on disc or as digital download and when it is finally available via subscription services.

Netflix is the main player when it comes to subscription video – it’s estimated that 200,000 Australians already sneak into the US service and it’s officially launching in Australia in March. Apple is holding off on a subscription video service, but it isn’t alone, other web giants like Google, Sony and Microsoft would also prefer to sell or rent you a movie rather than grant you access to a vast library for only a few dollars per month.

Australia’s three major commercial television networks are all reportedly working on Netflix-style subscription video services. The Nine Network and Fairfax have already released details of Stan, which has secured the rights to Breaking Bad along with exclusive access to its upcoming spin-off Better Call Saul.

Video streaming service Netflix is set to arrive in Australia this year.

 

Local pay TV giant Foxtel is also ramping up its online efforts. It dropped the price of its Presto subscription movie service in 2014, along with the price of home Foxtel subscriptions. A similar price drop may come to the online Foxtel Play. At the very least, Foxtel is likely to offer discounts when the next series of Game of Thrones screens, in order to stave off illegal downloads.

Foxtel’s exclusive deal with HBO denies Australian fans some legitimate ways to watch shows like Game of Thrones. Last season, Australian video services like iTunes, Google Play and Quickflix weren’t permitted to sell even the first episode of Game of Thrones until Foxtel had screened the entire season. Google Play and Quickflix jumped in the next day, but Apple left Game of Thrones fans in the lurch for more than a month, because it didn’t want to be dictated to by content providers. It was a bad outcome for viewers and certainly drove more Australians to piracy.

The next trend in cloud video services is likely to be content providers cutting out the middleman and going directly to the public. Disney and Warner have launched their own subscription video services and HBO has one planned for this year. Direct to the public services may sound like a good idea, but they run the risk of fragmenting the online video market and forcing people to subscribe to a dozen services to see everything that want.

At this point many will throw their hands up in despair and go back to BitTorrent.

 

GAMES

Of course, there’s more to entertainment than movies and music.

Games have been sold as digital downloads for many years – there’s the Steam platform, plus most games consoles also have their own online marketplace. The rise of smartphones and tablets has also seen Apple, Google and Microsoft start selling games. But games don’t need to reside on your end device – it’s an old concept, but it’s about to take on a new dimension.

Multiplayer games have been hosted in the cloud for decades. Long before the rise of expansive online worlds like World of Warcraft, it was possible to run first-person shooters like Counter-Strike and Quake online rather than on your computer. These days, you can rent servers to host everything from Call of Duty to Minecraft, creating public or private games for your friends to join.

Most game hosting platforms charge a flat rate monthly subscription, but you’ll find a handful that charge a few cents per hour based on the server resources you require. It’s even possible to spin up your own virtual server in Amazon Web Services, host a game like Minecraft and then only launch the server when you need it – so you’re only paying for the processing power.

The future of cloud gaming is rental models and streaming services, which handle most of the grunt work in the cloud rather than on your end device. There are two key kinds of cloud gaming services – video streaming services and file streaming services.

Sony’s PlayStation Now (formerly Gaikai) is a video game streaming service that is available in the US and may extend to Australia. It lets subscribers play PlayStation 3 games on a range of Sony devices including the handheld PlayStation Vita and new PlayStation TV set-top box. These devices aren’t powerful enough on their own to run PlayStation 3 games; they rely on the cloud computing power of PlayStation Now.

In a similar fashion, it’s also possible to stream games from a PlayStation 4 to a Vita or PlayStation TV around your home – letting you pause your game and resume it in another room when someone else needs to commandeer the big television in the lounge room.

Game file streaming services work in a different way. They actually download the game to the end device, but send it in pieces rather than as one large file. Enough code is sent to get you started playing, then the rest of the game is downloaded in the background – letting you get up and running quickly even if you’re on a slow internet connection.

In the long-term, it’s likely that cloud- based games will head in the same direction as movies and music, based on rentals and subscription services rather that outright purchases, although it’s still early days.

 

COMPUTING COMES FULL CIRCLE

The early days of computing were based around the idea of a powerful central mainframe, doing all the thinking for dumb terminals that were little more than a monitor and keyboard. This all changed with the rise of the personal computer, putting processing power on every desk, but the push to the cloud is recentralising that power and taking care of the heavy lifting for our multitude of end devices. The result gives us the world on-demand – anywhere, at anytime and on any device.

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