Imagine never having to worry about running out of space on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone for pictures, videos, or documents; or even having to remember where you saved a file. It’s a wonderful idea and we’re getting closer, but we aren’t there just yet.
I got a glimpse of this future while trying the latest service from Bitcasa, a Mountain View, California-based startup that wants to take cloud computing to its logical conclusion: allowing access any file, any time, no matter where you are, so long as you have Internet access. (Bitcasa does cache a number of your files on your machine so the files you use the most can be viewed offline.)
Previously in an open beta, Bitcasa left that designation behind this month. The company also announced an updated Mac application, an iOS app, and the arrival of a “freemium” model: anyone can sign up for the service and get 10 gigabytes of free storage, or pay $10 per month to upgrade to the infinite storage model (or $99 for the year, though the price is $69 for that upgrade from now until the end of February).
Several companies provide easy-to-use cloud storage. Dropbox, one of the most popular, offers users two gigabytes of free storage and its plans start at $10 per month for 100 gigabytes, or $99 per year. That sounds reasonable, but in America, we like our cloud storage capacity like we like our fast food: bigger. And nothing is bigger than unlimited, right?
With that in mind, I decided to test Bitcasa’s Infinite service on my own MacBook Pro, a Dell laptop I use for work, and my iPhone.
The company’s file-storage utopia is a great idea, especially as we increasingly switch between laptops, desktops, smartphones, and tablets, and gain reliable access to fast, wireless Internet. But to get us to this digital Shangri-la, Bitcasa has plenty of work to do.
From the user’s perspective, Bitcasa is fairly simple. You install the software on your computer, and, much like when you slide a memory stick into a USB port, a little green icon pops up called Bitcasa Infinite Drive. In addition to offering software for PCs, Macs, and iPhones, Bitcasa offers an Android app, an app for Windows 8 and RT machines, and even an extension for Google’s Chrome Web browser.
This drive sits on your computer desktop, and you can copy files to it by dragging and dropping them into it, or save them directly to it so they’re stored there and need not be kept on your computer.
You can also mirror folders, which means that Bitcasa will copy the contents of a folder to your drive, but you’ll also keep the items on your computer so you can use them when you aren’t connected to the Web. Bitcasa will keep track of any changes you make to files in these folders, and keep them synched with the cloud-based version. If, like me, you’re horrible at remembering to back up your files, this is an easy way to do so.
This simplicity is the coolest thing about Bitcasa: It’s easy to figure out how to add files to your cloud, and find them once they’re in there (though keep in mind that it can take a long time to upload large files). All data you upload is automatically encrypted, too, which should help reassure those concerned about storing sensitive data elsewhere.
It’s also very easy to share files with others—you create a link to a file or folder on your computer or on Bitcasa’s website, and e-mail it to your friends.
Another neat Bitcasa feature is the ability to see older versions of your files. This is especially useful if you’ve worked on a project over time and want to go back and see an earlier version, or if you delete a file and then realize you actually need it. You can access this through a Web interface, which I found a pleasant enough way to view Bitcasa files, despite its irritating white-text-on-a-black-background theme.
Unfortunately, in practice, I experienced some difficulties with the service. Initially, it was very slow to show changes on my different devices, be it to files I modified or new files I added to folders in my infinite drive (40 minutes to add a large folder of notes files, for example). I often felt it would have been faster to just e-mail these things to myself. This improved, however, after I downloaded an update to the software.
But files didn’t always go where they were supposed to when uploaded, such as a slew of images from an SD memory card that somehow ended up in the main Bitcasa drive, rather than in the folder with the rest of their batch.
There was another problem, though admittedly I couldn’t determine if this was the fault of my machines, Microsoft Word, or Bitcasa itself: Though I tried repeatedly, I couldn’t upload a Word document to Bitcasa on my Mac, make changes to it on my PC, save those changes to Bitcasa, then open it up again on the Mac (or vice versa). Somehow, the files always got corrupted or disappeared altogether. I had someone try replicating the problem on a Windows 8 machine and a Macbook Pro and they didn’t experience the same issue. I asked Bitcasa CEO and cofounder Tony Gauda about this, and he said his team would try to reproduce it internally but he didn’t think it was something they had seen so far.
I also had problems with the iPhone app. I briefly used a test version, then switched to the first version Bitcasa rolled out publicly. This one crashed nearly every time I opened it (I’m not the only one this has happened to, according to reviews in the App Store). An updated version worked better, allowing me to view photos, videos, music, and other files stored with the service, but it seemed slow to access files.
Two standout features here were the ability to download files to the iPhone so you can view them offline, and the capacity to connect your camera to Bitcasa so it will automatically upload a copy of any video or photo you take to the service. There’s no way to upload other files from the iPhone, though, which you can do on an Android phone with Bitcasa.
Bitcasa’s basic premise is a great one, and it’s clearly where computing and data storage are heading. First, though, it will need to work out the kinks.