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Remember when Amazon.com was just an online bookstore? That was several Internet revolutions ago, and lately the company has grown beyond even its retail roots, offering services like the nifty A9 search page. Several weeks ago, continuing its bingoesque naming convention, Amazon introduced its newest service, Amazon S3, an online storage destination where Internet users can store gigabytes of data on the cheap – $0.15 per gigabyte of storage used per month, plus $0.20 per gigabyte of data transferred.

That’s a microscopic price, even compared to the charges at hot new online storage providers like Box.net ($1 per GB per month) and XDrive ($2 per GB per month) – not to mention older providers like Novastor ($12.95 per GB per month) and Quicken Online Backup ($24.95 per month for up to 10 GB). The move is yet another demonstration that, as my colleague Brad King likes to say, the dot-com boom didn’t really fail. There is still plenty of room for maverick companies to topple existing businesses by engineering radical price shifts for basic commodities like storage.

But while anyone can use S3, Amazon built it mainly for Web developers – which means there’s no simple interface for uploading data to the service. In fact, there’s no Web-based interface at all.

That’s where a posse of new third-party services come in, offering easy access to S3 for a small (or non-existent) fee. Most of these services use a downloadable client program that runs on your local PC. This software can often be programmed to begin a backups at specified times, and to compress and encrypt data for upload.

Here’s a quick survey (probably incomplete by the time you read this):

Altexa – $1 per GB per month up to 10 GB, if you pay for 12 months’ service up front.

ElephantDrive – Free during the company’s beta-testing period.

Filicio.us – Free, but you must sign up for an Amazon S3 account and pay the usual $0.15 per GB for storage and $0.20 per GB for transfers.

Jungle Disk – Free aside from Amazon S3’s charges, as with Filicio.us.

Naturally, because they’re so new, not all of the “S3 mediator” services work perfectly. ElephantDrive failed on my laptop after transferring only a few dozen files – then restarted, only to fail again due to an “error connecting to server.” Some of the programs (like ElephantDrive) work only on Windows, while others (Jungle Disk) work across Windows, Mac, and Linux. Caution is required when downloading files back to your computer: If you’re using these services for anything more than archiving the files on your hard drive, the transfer charges will add up fast.

But the new S3-based services already offer a compelling alternative to the existing online storage providers. And my guess is that other big Internet and computing companies will follow Amazon’s lead, providing online storage for ever lower prices. Google – which practically invented low-cost online storage in April, 2004, with its free 1-GB Gmail accounts – may soon decide it’s time to roll out its long-rumored “GDrive” service. And what’s to stop Microsoft from offering a low-cost backup storage service as an optional part of Vista when the new OS finally ships in 2007, or as one of its growing family of “Live” Web services?

Stay tuned. The line between your local hard drive and the cloud of Web-based storage options is certain to get blurrier over the next year, and backing up your data to that cloud will become an automatic part of your computer’s job. That way, even if your laptop or desktop dies, your data won’t.

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