The Failure of the Cloud

Ever seen a device advertised as coming with extra “cloud” storage? Depending on what device you buy, you’ll get 5-50Gb of free storage in iCloud, Skydrive, Box.net, Dropbox, Google Drive, or any number of other online storage services. Gmail amazed us all when it offered 1Gb inboxes when it first came out, but today, it seems that everyone is offering tens of gigs of storage for free, and ever-larger amounts for basic paid accounts.

And yet, when the Microsoft Surface Pro came out, everyone was dumbfounded to find it had so little local storage space free. It was advertised as coming with 10Gb of free online storage, so shouldn’t that help?

As anyone who’s use online storage enough knows, free online storage won’t help anything.

The Myth of Limitless Storage

Spend long enough with web apps, and you’d think that storing everything you’ve ever created and found should be easy. Let’s take Evernote, for example. Evernote lets you store up to 60Mb of uploads per month on free accounts, and bumps that up to 1Gb per month with a paid account. That should be plenty of space to store everything you ever create, right?

Well, not so quick. How much storage space does your computer have? If you’re using a MacBook Air, Surface, or any other computer with a SSD, odds are you’ve got a bit less storage than you’d have on another computer. Say, 128Gb, like I have on my MacBook Air. Install all your apps and copy over your files, and you’ll have far less space free.

That’s where Evernote and Dropbox and iCloud will come in handy, right?

Evernote Uploads

Think again. Dropbox and Evernote – and most other apps that use cloud storage – store everything on your computer, and in the cloud. Every file in your Dropbox, every iCloud-synced document, every email in your Gmail inbox, every Evernote note, everything takes up space on your computer if you’re using native apps.

I recently got a Doxie One scanner for a review, which is a rather nifty way to quickly scan documents and send them to the cloud – that is, to Dropbox and Evernote. Yet going fully paperless that way would mean that I’d lose space on my MacBook Air, not just fill up my cloud storage.

The Current Solutions

There’s a few workarounds, for the present, but none are particularly great. Dropbox, for example, lets you selectively sync folders, so you can add new folders, then set them to not sync to your computer. Now, you can upload files directly from your browser, storing them in the cloud without taking up storage on your computer. Voilá.

Dropbox Selective Sync

All’s well … until you go to find your files. You’ll be trying to find the right file in Spotlight, only to think it’s missing. It’s right there – in the cloud – just far enough out of reach to take extra trouble to find and view.

You’ll still have all the other apps – everything synced with iCloud, Evernote, your email, and more – syncing all of your cloud data to your computer, though. Mobile devices escape much of the madness, downloading files on demand, but that ends up being frustrating too.

That’s one of the biggest reasons I like sharing files with CloudApp: you upload them, and just forget about them taking up space. If I was to use Dropbox as my main sharing tool, I’d at least have to manage the files locally, or find a workaround, and that’s too much trouble. It’s almost to the point where purely online apps (say, Google Docs) make more sense than the half-way house apps we have right now.

A Middle Ground

What we need are smarter apps, and a smarter cloud. Apps that can download the data we need on demand, offset the rest to online storage, and keep just enough around to make it easy to work. It should be possible to make it fully seamless. Imagine this: what if most of your apps stored their files in the cloud, but only kept the files you’ve used most recently cached locally. Everything else is still indexed, with thumbnails and metadata so you can still search and find the things you want easily, but it’s downloaded on demand. If it’s really integrated, it could – theoretically – let you start watching videos or reading eBooks as they’re streaming to your device from your cloud storage, blurring the usability differences of local and online files.

At the very least – for now – apps could all let us selectively choose what’s kept local, and what’s in the cloud, and not make it so maddeningly difficult to work with files that are in the cloud.

Using only web apps – like, say, using Evernote only in the browser – might be somewhat of a solution, but most of us still download apps to use with our web apps. There’s got to be a better solution.


  • http://ernestoschnack.com Ernesto

    I think Bitcasa are on the right track with this.

  • http://l.bitcasa.com/pFffR0Dk Steve

    I think Bitcasa is aiming to do just what you propose in the final few paragraphs. Check it out http://l.bitcasa.com/pFffR0Dk.

  • http://1123interactive.com/ John Coleman

    This is an interesting post, and a great idea for a web app. I am not sure if the APIs are there, but it would be great to have a Dropbox client, for example, that just shows me a file listing of all of my directories, but only downloads the files when I request/open them. Bonus points for being able to set certain directories to allow offline access (e.g. keep copies on my machine).

  • Tim

    There is absolutely NO way I would store every document on a shared server, no matter how secure it might be. My computer is for my personal stuff that I don’t want anyone else to have access too.

  • http://jussie.co Jussie

    Just had a look at Bitcasa looks like a good solution to the problems raised in this blog post. I currently use Box and Google Drive but I manually upload to these rather than sync so I don’t really have these issues so much.

  • Another Tim

    Oxygen Cloud also does something like this. It keeps a full directory tree and file stubs (document.docx.cloud) in a local encrypted volume. To download something, you just double click the stub file, or you can keep whole folders in sync. You can also bring your own storage, so your limit is whatever you provide. It’s pretty cool. :) http://oxygencloud.com

    By the way, I tried Bitcasa and it responds like webdav – super slow to browse through the folders. Oxygen Cloud keeps the stubs locally so it’s just like browsing a local filesystem (because it is).

    I’m not affiliated, but my university has just implemented it, so I use it.

    • Another Tim

      Actually, I apologise, the super slow browsing was only initially, I guess it was just while downloading the default files.

      It manages the cache automatically – you don’t get to choose which files aren’t synced (like Oxygen). I can’t imagine it’d be pleasurable to navigate through unsynced files though. I’ll have to use it a bit more.

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