Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Favorite Cloud-Based Services

As part of my effort to move away from all things Microsoft and desktop software in general, I've been using a number of cloud-based services with regularity and am amazed at how far along they've come over the past year or two.  In fact, I find their convenience and ease-of-use so compelling that I rarely find myself creating new content locally on my hard drive anymore.  Plus, the fact that I can easily access these services from my PC, iPad or Android phone means that my data is always accessible no matter where I happen to be.  And best of all, these services are all free!  So...without further ado, here's a list of some of my favorites:

Google Docs
Not the newest kid on the block, but Google Docs has made numerous improvements since it was launched a few years ago and I can safely say now that I'll never create another Microsoft Office document again.  And if you're like me you only use about 10% of the functionality of MS Office anyway, so why keep all that bloatware on your PC?  Docs is also accessible from both iOS and Android devices, though editing capabilities are somewhat limited on those platforms.  And Google has made it pretty easy to share documents with specific individuals or across an entire workgroup; in fact, it's kind of cool working on a shared spreadsheet and being able to see other members of your team updating cells in real-time.  And for those of you who have shied away from Docs thinking that it just couldn't be powerful enough to replace MS Office, have a look at this presentation.

I started to use Evernote when I decided to dump Outlook and needed another place to store all the little notes that I take - my grocery list, names of interesting restaurants I happen to spot, meeting notes, etc.  Evernote does all this and then some.  Among other things I can assign tags to my notes so that I can dynamically categorize them,  with the Evernote browser extension I can push one button to clip a webpage and save it off as a note, I can have my Evernote content displayed within Google search results, and I can create a note instantly using a photo I just shot on my smartphone.  The optional Evernote application is available on all the usual platforms, though on my PC I rarely use it because I find that their web interface to be more than sufficient.  But their iPad app is a must have, as it's simply a thing of beauty.

Why would anyone go through the hassle of setting up a shared public drive in their office when they could be using Dropbox instead?  Dropbox makes it dead simple to upload and store any type of file to its service, and optionally share files and/or folders with selected parties.  It even keeps track of older versions of files and allows you to review their revision history.  If you install the optional desktop application your Dropbox folder will even show up as a local PC or Mac folder, and you can operate against that folder just as you would with a file sitting on your hard drive.  You also receive desktop notifications whenever a shared file is updated, and your local copy is automatically synced with the cloud.  One word of caution, however...If you happen to be one of those unfortunate souls that must login to a Windows domain, then by default your local Dropbox folder will be created within your roaming profile.  To avoid any potential syncing issues when running in disconnected mode you should go into the Dropbox application settings and change the location of this folder to somewhere within your local hard drive.

I just started using LucidChart about a month ago and simply love it.  If you ever have the need to quickly create a diagram or flowchart but don't want to hassle with something like Visio, then this is for you.  Or, if you're like me and don't have an artistic bone in your body but occasionally need to produce a wire-frame in order to conceptualize an idea and share it with others then this is a must have.  LucidChart is a functional replacement for Visio, and its wire-framing and "demo" capabilities are indispensable during the earlier stages of web design.  And the entire application is written in HTML 5 and really showcases its power.  One of its coolest features is the ability to search though Google Images for something you're looking for, and then once you locate it you can just drag-and-drop that image straight into your diagram.

Amazon Cloud Drive
Available just within the past two weeks, Amazon Cloud Drive is what iTunes should aspire to be - a cloud-base service that allow you to stream and/or download your media content over the internet.  As you would expect from Amazon the service is very robust and the UI is excellent.  The optional Cloud Player app just takes a few short minutes to scan your entire iTunes library and creates a listing of all the artists, albums, playlists, etc. that can be uploaded to Cloud Drive.  And for the ones that cannot be uploaded (e.g. unsupported format, DRM-protected, etc.) it displays a list of those files along with the specific reason why.  Amazon gives everyone 5 GB of Cloud storage for free, and between now and the end of the year if you make just one MP3 purchase (I bought a 99-cent album) you'll get upgraded to 20 GB, enough for most people to store all of their music.  I've moved my entire music library onto it and couldn't be happier...I can access my playlists from anywhere now and not have to worry about syncing.  Unfortunately, for you iOS fanboys I'm afraid to say that currently you cannot access Cloud Drive content from an iPhone or iPad - perhaps you'll have to wait for Apple to get their act together and bring iTunes out of the stone ages in order to gain this capability.