In the early days of the Internet, storing data and accessing applications on servers located beyond the walls of our homes and offices was more science fiction than business reality. Users dug the concept, but wouldn't dream of getting real work done with a browser connected to the Internet.
For many people, the browser and the computer have since merged into a single entity. These folks no longer buy and install software. Instead, they boot up their computer, launch their favorite browser and then access a number of applications, hosted on servers all over the world. Their data is stored there, too -- out in the cloud, far from the spinning platters of their hard drives. And they're getting serious work done.
You can be one of those people, too. You still need a computer, but you don't need to invest in expensive software. Most cloud services -- or Web apps, as they're sometimes called -- are free or cost a minimal monthly fee. After that, all you need is a little knowledge about what's available. That's where this article comes in.
On the next several pages, we're going to explore how you can make the cloud work for you, whether you're a small business owner, an artist, a student or just someone looking for a cool way to connect to other like-minded individuals. Let's start with the foundation of any good cloud computing solution -- file storage and syncing.
With cloud-based file storage and syncing , you're actually renting a tiny portion of a server owned by a service provider. You still have a PC, or five, but you install some code that watches for new files to appear in a designated folder. When they do, the code initiates an automatic sync, which uploads the new data over your Internet connection to your little piece of the provider's servers and then downloads it to all connected PCs. Most providers also have developed mobile apps, so you can access these files on your tablet and phone.
The great thing about cloud storage is that it backs up your data outside of your home or office, which is especially handy if, say, a house fire consumes your PC.
Dropbox and SugarSync are two popular file storage and syncing providers, but you can find dozens of solutions, including some hosted by big-name technology brands: Amazon (Cloud Drive), Google (Google Drive) and Microsoft (SkyDrive). Most provide some storage -- 5 gigabytes, say -- for free and then charge a fee based on how much additional storage you use.
In the early days of the Internet, project collaboration looked like this: You created a file on your computer. Then you attached that file to an e-mail and sent it to a group of people for review. They each downloaded the attachment, made edits and sent it back. You were stuck with multiple versions of the file and the unenviable task of merging all the comments.
Collaboration sites can eliminate these frustrations. Multiple people can share these virtual workspaces, regardless of their location. Typically, an administrator sets up the account and then invites users to join. He or she can assign people specific roles, which limits what they can do and what information they can access while they're in the space.
Most good collaboration sites offer a core set of functions that enable team members to communicate, exchange ideas and share files without relying on e-mail. The best sites streamline file versioning and scheduling and allow users to initiate discussions about any aspect of a project. When used effectively, a collaboration site functions as a comprehensive archive of all related project work.
Basecamp, from 37signals, is one of the best-known. It's been around for several years and offers a robust set of tools. Onehub is another interesting option, allowing companies to set up secure, cloud-hosted portals that can be used to share, preview, discuss and edit documents or other large files.
Digital cameras and recorders were supposed to revolutionize how we dealt with our photos and videos. Instead, we ended up with files spread across media cards, laptops, flash drives, external drives, CDs, tablets and phones.
The cloud, in the form of a photo or video management site, can rescue you from the madness. As with a file storage solution, all of your media files live on an external server. In fact, you can use most file-storage sites to back up and synchronize photos and videos, but they're not made to tag your content with useful information, or share them easily with friends and family. Purpose-built video and photo sites can do all of this and more. Most feature drag-and-drop capabilities, which make it easy to move files from a device to the cloud. Once your image or clip is online, you can add keywords, organize it into albums or galleries and then share it with a click of your mouse.
Popular photo sites include Flickr, Shutterfly and Snapfish. Serious photographers will want to check out SmugMug or Zenfolio. These feature-rich sites charge membership fees, but they give far more control to users with thousands of images and hefty space requirements.
On the video side, of course there's YouTube, which receives 72 hours of content a minute from filmographers all over the world [source: Larson]. If you fancy yourself the next Martin Scorsese, then consider Vimeo, which offers a solid feature set, including password-protected videos, yet tends to serve a smaller crowd of film enthusiasts.
Even after the Internet revolution, listening to music generally required a device -- a CD player, a laptop, an MP3 player -- and a medium -- a CD, a hard drive, flash memory. Then, as fixed and mobile broadband services expanded, people enjoyed increasingly faster access to online content. Streaming, or transferring data so that it can be processed as a steady, continuous stream, became a viable alternative to delivering bandwidth-hungry audio files.
Streaming music services have grown in popularity because they give listeners access to an infinitely large jukebox of songs stored in the cloud. Some providers deliver all of this ear candy as streaming audio only, which means the songs can be played, but they can't be stored locally on your computer hard drive. Others allow for both streaming and downloads. Almost all offer a free service, although you'll have to listen to ads in between songs. If you want an ad-free experience, go for a premium service, which also unlocks other features, such as the ability to access your account on all of your connected and mobile devices.
Finally, the user experience can be quite different from one service to the next. Pandora, one of the most popular streaming music services, works by building a randomly generated playlist based on a song or artist the user identifies. Spotify and Rdio simply open up their music vaults, and let listeners choose.
Photos and graphics can enhance just about any form of communication, right? Yet creating really good images is easier said than done. In recent years, cloud-based drawing and painting programs have made this process much less onerous. There are two basic types of services: those that allow you to create line art, such as flowcharts and wireframes, and those that allow you to edit photos from your camera or favorite stock imagery site.
Getting started usually entails a quick registration and perhaps a video tutorial or two. Almost all provide a free service that buys a small amount of storage and a limited number of images and export options. Upgrade to a premium service, and you can get the whole caboodle -- unlimited storage space and images, and more flexible export options, such as the ability to save in PNG, JPEG, SVG or PDF formats.
Most online drawing and painting sites provide the same basic features and tools as more powerful desktop applications. For example, Gliffy, an online diagramming service, echoes the experience of Microsoft Visio. You can draw basic shapes, order and align them, apply colors, add text and experiment with certain special effects. When you're done with a diagram, you can embed and share your work via social media or invite others to view and comment.
Online photo editors like Pixlr behave a lot like Adobe Photoshop. They allow you to crop images, adjust color characteristics and mask out backgrounds or foregrounds. And then they make sharing a snap. With Pixlr, you can save edited images to your desktop, to the company's servers or to Facebook, Flickr and Picasa.
As your digital universe expands, you accumulate friends, followers and fanatics who love to visit your site and comment on your blog. Cloud-based services have emerged as viable alternatives for freelancers, small businesses or anyone looking to manage their growing list of contacts, a process sometimes known as CRM, or customer relationship management. If you want to experiment with one of these services, you'll have to invest some up-front time getting your contacts loaded into the system.
Where they really shine is how well they integrate with other popular Web applications. For example, they let you import and consolidate all of your contacts from the likes of Gmail, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and MailChimp. Once you have the contact database populated, you can add tags and other relevant information, then sort, segment and filter to understand who you know and how they relate to each other. Even more helpful, especially if you're running a business, you can keep track of conversations, set up reminders to follow up, attach e-mails or assign task lists to yourself or to team members.
If you're already using a Web-based e-mail system, such as Gmail, then you probably have access to a modest contact manager. But if you want to do some serious CRM, then you'll need to graduate to something more robust. Many people consider Salesforce to be the gold standard in CRM solutions, although it's overkill for most small business owners. Other options include Highrise, from the makers of Basecamp, and Batchbook. Both of these offer a free trial but no free service plans.
The desktop e-mail client is dying a slow death. In June 2011, just over 50 percent of all e-mails were opened on the desktop. In June 2012, that number had fallen to 33 percent [source: Jordan]. One reason for the demise is that an e-mail client -- a piece of software you install on your computer -- ties you to an operating system and can make syncing e-mails across multiple computers, tablets and phones problematic.
Some people sidestep these issues by using a webmail application. This certainly works, but better solutions can be found in cloud-based e-mail systems. If you enroll in a free service, you won't be able to get a custom domain (the part of your e-mail address that comes after the @ symbol), and you'll have to be able to live with ads in your inbox. In exchange, you'll have access to all of the core e-mail features that come in a desktop client. You can compose, format and send outgoing messages, read and organize incoming messages, and reply to people listed in the address field. And you'll be able to do all of that on any computer that has a browser and an Internet connection.
Of course, Yahoo Mail is a big Web-based e-mail service. As is Gmail from Google. It integrates with Google Drive, which combines file storage with a suite of productivity tools to create documents, spreadsheets and presentations without ever leaving the browser. Google also offers a business-class version of Gmail.
If you've ever experimented with spreadsheets, then you know how technology can improve the budgeting process. The right tools can crunch your numbers more efficiently and display the data in all sorts of useful ways. This in turn helps you to understand where every penny is going.
Now it's possible to get all of that functionality -- for free -- from an application running in the cloud. As with all Web-based services, you must first create an account with a provider. In most cases, you'll be connecting your various accounts to the financial management application so it can track transactions and make sense of your expenses and deposits. You can then tell the system how you want to get timely reminders about payment due dates, low balances and credit card limits. When it's tax time or simply time to assess where you stand financially, you can generate an array of reports that summarize your spending, income, net worth and account balances over time.
Mint, from the makers of Quicken, is one of the most popular Web-based financial management applications. It's a read-only service, however, which means you can organize and analyze your finances with Mint, but you can't move funds. If you want to monitor your bills and then actually pay them electronically, then consider Check, which supports bill-pay features. In fact, Check is most useful as a mobile app, allowing you to pay a bill, right from your phone, while you're away from your computer.
If you're a sole proprietor or a freelancer, you play many roles. Some of the more unpleasant and time-consuming roles include overseeing back-office functions. Thankfully, the cloud can streamline business financial management. One approach, especially if you have a relatively simple billing and payment structure, is to piece together one or two cloud services. Some freelancers require nothing more than a timekeeping application to track hours spent on a project and an invoicing application to bill the client accordingly.
If you have multiple employees or contractors, you'll want one of the cloud-based applications that integrate all of the basic accounting functions. As the business owner, you must register with the provider of your choosing and then input all of the necessary data, like billing information. Finally, you set up your team and invite employees to projects. After accepting the initial invitations, employees can log in, from any computer, and track hours spent on their assigned projects. At the end of the month, collect employee time and prepare invoices, which can either be e-mailed to clients as PDFs or printed out for postal delivery.
The old desktop favorites -- Peachtree Accounting (now Sage 50) and QuickBooks -- have cloud-hosted versions of their software. If timekeeping is all you're after, check out Toggl. For a full-featured timekeeping, invoicing and financial management solution that integrates with PayPal and offers a solid smartphone edition, give Freshbooks a look.
Thanks to cloud-based services, you can do more without ever leaving your favorite browser, but just how many usernames and passwords can one person remember? (New York Times technology writer David Pogue once revealed that he has account names and passwords for 87 sites!) And what if you want an integrated view of your favorite Web apps? Or the ability to drag and drop files from one service to another?
Cloud storage management is one answer to these questions. Just like the apps they manage, these solutions work from the cloud. Different service providers support different apps, but they almost all include the big-name file-storage services like Dropbox. After the enrollment process, you enjoy single sign-on capabilities, which means you can access all of the connected services with a single username and password. You also have the ability to search and find any file regardless of its location and then drag and drop it between services. And you can preview and share documents and images without moving to the application where they're stored.
Otixo, which bills itself as "your dashboard for the cloud," is one of the leading contenders in this space. It offers a (not free) premium bundle that includes both its Web and smartphone applications. Primadesk is a similar service, but it also integrates some of the leading cloud-based e-mail systems in addition to file storage. It offers both free and paid versions.
Google is redesigning the way we use email. HowStuffWorks delves into the changes.
Author's Note: 10 Ways to Make the Cloud Work for You
Back in 1998, I started the slow and steady move to adopt cloud-based services for any process or function that made sense. I migrated my e-mail to Google Apps and never looked back. Today I use a number of Web applications for everything from database creation to task management. I'm not sure if I have as many Web accounts as David Pogue (see No. 1 in this list), but I might give him a run for his money.
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