Since high school, I’ve been dealing with the same old problem: How do I access my files when I’m not at my home computer? I started out with external storage; I used a 5.25″ floppy disk for a year, and quickly upgraded to a 3.5″ floppy. It held all of my documents and programming files, all meticulously organized. The disk itself has long since failed, but the files it contained are still with me to this day (though I’ve long since converted them to modern file formats). I moved to a laptop for some time as my primary machine, and backups were few and far between. I’ve only suffered data loss once: a RAID 0 crashed and 3 months of files were lost. I still rue that day, as I knew full well the RAID was failing, but I was too busy to run a backup and investigate further.
In college I kept some of my files on the school servers, and used a text editor which could edit files over ftp to edit them remotely. I had a brief stint using web based file storage, where the provider offered a way to mount the storage to a drive letter in Windows. The service didn’t last more than a few years, but it definitely gave me a taste of things to come. I’ve run custom rsync scripts, SSH servers mounted as drives, and owned a variety of external media. Buying a Mac made the whole problem slightly more annoying, as I had to maintain cross platform compatibility.
The Rise of the Syncing Services
Eventually I stumbled upon a service called SugarSync, and I fell in love. I was able to specify certain folders, and these folders would automagically stay in sync across multiple computers and multiple OSs, without effort. I even had access to the files through a website.
I set up a client with SugarSync to mirror their documents to several business computers, and used a script to make backup copies of critical files, which are then backed up to the web via SugarSync. Coupled with its file versioning support, it has on more than one occasion allowed me to recover files and undo drastic mistakes that would have otherwise crippled the business.
I ended up getting into an invite-only service called Dropbox not long before it went public, and to date it is my primary solution to the remote access problem. I still maintain SSH server and remote desktop access to my desktop, but I almost never need to bother.
My roommate recently had her notebook stolen, and was rather devastated. She’s starting a new business, and one of the lost files was the most recent copy of her business plan. She asked me to OCR an older copy she had lying around, and I was a little confused; I had set her up with Dropbox several months prior, and I don’t think she fully understood the benefits. Sure enough, all of her files were fine, safely mirrored to her old desktop and the web.
While these services are highly useful, they have yet to hit the mainstream. Both Microsoft and Apple have their own competing versions, and moving forward we’re going to see this kind of sync become a key part of the computing experience. Already you can log into your online photo gallery or email account from anywhere and have access to all your data. Eventually all of your files will be stored in the cloud, and will be automatically accessed by any device you own. You’ll be able to log onto a friend’s computer, and all of your files, applications, and settings will be the same as if you were using your own computer.
I don’t see computers all becoming dumb terminals like the early days of computing, but the effect will be much the same. It will no longer matter if we’re using a tablet, phone, desktop, or laptop. It will no longer matter where we are, or who owns the device we’re using. We’ll no longer be constrained to any particular device or location to accomplish our tasks.