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Doug Johnson's Tech Proof

Living in the Cloud

This column is being written without a word processor -- or at least without one that resides on my computer's hard drive. The file itself never will be stored on my computer. And to send this file to Education World, I will not use a PC-based e-mail program. Instead, I'm using GoogleDocs, a set of online productivity tools that allow one to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and surveys, along with Web-based Gmail.

This is part of my experiment in moving to "cloud-based" computing. Cloud computing relies on applications and file storage that reside only on the Internet, with little on the local computer's hard drive except a Web browser.

Why would anyone want to do that -- even a pseudo-geek like yours truly? As a frequent traveler, I want to work on any project, anywhere, regardless of the computer I'm using. Give me a computer with Internet access -- whether it's on my desk at school, on my lap at home, in any computer lab or coffee shop in the world, or in the guest bedroom at Mom's house -- and I can work with the same tools on the same files. Any feasible 1:1 student-to-computer plan in our school probably will involve students getting low-cost netbooks. (See Netbooks and Computing in the Clouds, TechProof, November 2008.). Those inexpensive devices will need to use the power of the Internet because of their low internal storage capacity and the need for them to be easily managed. With a netbook and the cloud, netbooks are virtually interchangeable, so if a device needs repair or is left at home, another machine can easily be substituted. I'd also like to see about lowering my personal and school district's computing costs by using these inexpensive computers and the cloud. The netbooks are inexpensive, file storage is free, and basic applications are free. Money that would have been spent on student work stations, big fileservers, and expensive software now can be used to pay for increased bandwidth, greater wireless coverage, or -- maybe, just maybe -- smaller class sizes.

My personal move hasn't been all that difficult, even for a reactionary geezer like me. Below are my top computer uses and how Im moving my tasks to the cloud:

  • E-mail: Both my school Exchange and my personal Gmail accounts already have robust online e-mail clients. My biggest challenge has been moving all my saved e-mail from my hard drive-based Entourage/Outlook client to my online Gmail account and then tagging all that old e-mail so I can find it again. (I have a folder mind, not a tag mind, I'm afraid.)
  • Web searching and bookmarking: I already have a Delicious account, so I just imported the bookmarks I'd saved in my browser.
  • Word processing, presentation creation and spreadsheet use: After years of using Office, the move to GoogleDocs for my day-to-day productivity has been easy. In fact, getting away from Office's "feature creep" has been refreshing. Those programs are not sufficiently full-featured for everything I need to do. While Docs is fine for writing short pieces, it's not practical for writing a book. The presentation program lacks animation, transitions, and in-program image editing. But for 95 percent of my work and for storing my files, GoogleDocs seems to be working just fine, thank you. Oh, and sharing my masterpieces is a breeze!
  • Photo storage and editing: I've been storing my best pictures on a commercial photo storage site for years and editing them with Photoshop. But Flickr and Picasa are freebies that work just fine for this amateur's editing and storage needs. And it looks like Picasa gives iPhoto a run for its money as a photo organizer.
  • Web page editing and webmastering: My personal blog, wiki, and Web site already are completely managed via an application service provider who uses online tools for management and editing. As does our school Web site. As do the professional association Web sites I help manage -- Kiwanis, our lakes association, our state library/tech association, and so on.
  • School-specific tasks: All gradebooks, reporting systems, and communications in our district are Web-based, as are our accounting and other management systems. Period.

So what applications will I need to keep on my computer or find on a temporary machine as either a stand-alone or browser add-on? A PDF reader, movie player, de-compression program, anti-virus and spyware programs, iTunes to manage my iPod apps, SecondLife, and.Skype. I think that's about it.

So what's the downside to this approach of providing computer resources to oneself and one's staff and students? Why shouldn't everyone fly to the cloud? Some questions need serious consideration.

What happens when there is no Internet access? GoogleMail and GoogleDocs now can be used off-line in conjunction with GoogleGears. Work off-line and your documents will be synced when the next Internet connection is made. Bandwidth limitations might be a challenge for some districts with a small pipe to the Internet.

Am I abetting Google's world domination? Might there be a charge for these now "free" services someday? Yes, on world domination. If you feel uncomfortable using Google (like many have felt uncomfortable using Microsoft in the past), there are alternatives like Zoho. The revenue model is anybody's guess. Advertisements and selling more fully-featured versions of applications or larger storage spaces are the likely models.

Are my files secure and private? That probably is the deal-breaker for many skeptics of the trend. As a devout belt and suspender user, I encourage keeping local backup copies of all important files stored as online documents. I certainly would study the privacy settings of any program I use -- who gets access to what is getting more granular all the time. Can we trust Google and others not to peek at our stuff? Who knows? My insurance against unwarranted data access is living a completely sin-free life. But I know that won't work for everyone.

Are there some things just too cumbersome to do online? I recognize that were I ever to try to edit video, I'd need a full blown computer. I can't play or make CDs or DVDs. (When are they going to start selling movies on flash drives, do you suppose?) Any big data crunching/data processing tasks still will need big computing power.

 

Article by Doug Johnson
Education World®
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Updated 03/06/2012