The forecast for the future of the PC: partly cloudy.
Online storage systems that can automatically synchronize the data on all of your computing devices, including the PCs you use at home and at work and your smart phone, are finally a reality. One industry watcher, Thomas Vander Wal, calls them “personal infoclouds”: technologies that scatter your data across the Internet and reassemble them on your preferred devices.
If you edit a photo or a document and save it on your work PC, for example, these new services will automatically update the online copy, then do the same for the copies on your work PC or even your cell phone. This month, Sharpcast introduced a service that synchronizes digital photographs, and companies such as Streamload are rolling out systems this summer that keep other types of files in sync, including commercially purchased downloads such as iTunes songs and videos.
With these new offerings – and assuming that broadband Internet connections keep getting faster and more ubiquitous – it might become unnecessary to store local copies at all, meaning your hard drive could be entirely replaced by remote Internet servers. Although that isn’t likely to happen soon, the looming “data cloud” is already beginning to obscure the once-paramount PC. “The more devices we have that can access such services, and use them to share and synchronize information, the less we need computers,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, research director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, CA.
Streamload’s synchronization feature, added to its existing MediaMax service a few weeks ago, is typical of the genre. Users can set the MediaMax client software to keep either the entire contents or selected files from their hard drives synchronized across devices. “Once I associate MediaMax with a folder on my machine, then those files will stay in sync, automatically, behind the scenes,” says Michael Corrales, Streamload’s director of marketing. “And I have the option to invite others to synchronize with my folder. So every time I upload a new movie, my mother will receive a notification that it’s there, and the option to download, view, or delete it – and if she’s running the client application, too, it will automatically download to her computer.”
Streamload gives away the first 25 gigabytes of storage and 1 gigabyte of downloaded data; heavier users pay $4.95 per month for 100 gigabytes of storage and 10 gigabytes of downloads.
Similar services are available from Israeli software outfit BeInSync and a Microsoft-owned company, FolderShare, whose synchronization system is being folded into the parent company’s Windows Live Web services platform.
Sharpcast’s service is even simpler. Once the company’s client software is installed on the user’s PCs and mobile phones, any change made to any photograph on one device is automatically replicated on all of the other devices and on Sharpcast’s own servers. If the user takes a photograph using his phone, for example, a copy is sent immediately to his Sharpcast website and home or office PCs. If the user doesn’t happen to be online when taking or editing photos, the system queues updates for later delivery. “It’s syncing without thinking,” says Sharpcast CEO Gibu Thomas. “You don’t even have to push a button. The whole process of manual uploads and downloads goes away.” Later this year, Sharpcast intends to let users synchronize other data, such as calendar appointments and contacts.