Living in the cloud, but not the browser

I have an iPhone, a netbook and a multi-monitor desktop. And for most tasks, it really doesn’t matter which one I use because can get to all the same data from all three.

I tried doing the web-app thing. I really did. Given that my netbook is a pre-Atom HP 2133 with a VIA CPU that I think is actually powered by hamsters, I tried living in the browser, turning Chrome into a poor man’s Google ChromeOS. I even went as far as to create “app” shortcuts for Google Calendar, Gmail, etc. so I could launch them directly from my taskbar. It just didn’t work. I didn’t fully grok why it didn’t work for me until I read Ben Ward’s treatise on what the “web” really means:

If you reach the point of building a browser-based application that you depend on so many proprietary enhancements that your users can only access it using Google Chrome, I think you’ve picked the wrong platform. If you want to built the most amazing user interface, you will need to use native platforms. A single vendor’s benevolent curation of their framework will always outpace the collaborative, interoperable developments of the web, whether it’s locked in a standards process or not. When they do a good job (like Apple have with CocoaTouch) their platform will succeed. But the web will always be the canonical source of information and relationships. That’s what it was built for. Blogging at length about how much the device APIs suck won’t ever undo that, nor change the fact that turning HTML in a rich application dialect is still a very new idea.

So how does a Windows user (in my case, but you’ll see that most of the tools I outline below are cross-platform and should work just as well for Mac/Linux people) use native desktop apps to get the superior user interface and still keep the “I’ll use whatever computer I happen to have on hand, thanks” freedom of web apps? It’s actually not all that hard. My programs may reside on my various computers, but my data, that lives in the cloud.

Files, you needs them

Dropbox The first key to the solution is Dropbox. This is where all my discrete files live. All of my documents, spreadsheets, images, and I’m thinking about even music. For free, you get 2GB of storage on the web. Any file or folder you put in your special "My Dropbox" folder gets synced automatically every time it is changed It’s password protected, and only stuff you deliberately put in the “Public” folder is visible to others unless you explicitly share it with someone, and then only they can see it.

What makes Dropbox better than Live Mesh, Box.net or any of the other cloud storage solutions out there? In short, it just works. You install the Dropbox client, it runs silently in the background and syncs files to and from the cloud quickly and reliably. It only syncs the parts of files that have changed, so even syncing big files is quick and painless.

But what really makes Dropbox shine is how it integrates with other services. I keep all my writing stuff in Dropbox in Word and Excel formats. Not only do I know these files will be there and up to date whether I’m on my desktop or my netbook, but I also have the ability to edit them in place with Documents To Go (or QuickOffice Connect) on my iPhone—and eventually, my iPad. I know any changes I make will be there and waiting for me the next time I access them in Microsoft Office on my Windows machines.

Bonus Advanced Geekery: Vista and Windows 7 support hardlinks and junctions. These are similar to shortcuts, but embedded deeper into the system. While a shortcut is a pointer to a file, to applications—like Dropbox—a hardlink is the file (junctions are to folders what hardlinks are to files). So you can create hardlinks and junctions to files and folders outside your Dropbox folder and still have them sync to the cloud. See the icons with the chainlink overlays in the screenshot? Those are junctions. You can create these manually from the command line or download this nifty freeware to create them in Windows Explorer like you manage all your other files. I have my documents and pictures folders linked this way, so most of the time I just interact with files in their "normal" locations and kind of forget my Dropbox folder exists. (There is another, simpler way to do this, but it only allows syncing folders to Dropbox, not individual files, so I prefer the first method.)

Dropbox is free if you need anything up to 2GB of storage. Upping that to 50GB is $9.99/month or $99.99/year, and 100GB is $19.99/month or $199.99/year.

As good as Dropbox is, it only protects what you put in it. For everything else on my hard drive, I use Carbonite. This is less cloud storage than cloud backup. Carbonite backs up whatever you tell it to, with no size limit, to a backup store in the cloud. Files are double AES encrypted, and even the admins at Carbonite can’t tell what is in the files you back up. While all my documents are safe in Dropbox if my home 1TB harddrive should fail, my entire iTunes libarary—music, TV shows and movies that Apple won’t let me redownload for free—are safe in Carbonite. $54.95 for a year, and well worth the peace of mind.

There’s more to life than files

A lot of your data doesn’t exist as discrete files. You have email, calendar events, contacts, bookmarks, passwords and all kinds of other “stuff” to keep track of. And in most cases, you can use desktop tools to access these while still keeping the data out on the internets where you can get to it from anywhere.

The first tool for this is Google Chrome. I know I said above that I didn’t use web apps much, but Chrome has some pretty useful features in an of itself. (I should note here that just about all the cool features in Chrome can be replicated on Firefox by using extensions, but I’ve found that Firefox has an “extension event horizon” beyond which the browser is too slow, bloated and crash-prone to use. Chrome does what I want out of the box, and even though it supports extensions too, I haven’t had to install any.) In particular for our purposes here, it can sync bookmarks and passwords between computers. Setting this up is as simple as clicking the Tools menu, then Sync and signing in with your Google account name. That takes care of bookmarks and web passwords.

Next up, email and all that other “Outlook” stuff. I use Mozilla Thunderbird with a couple of extensions. It’s slower than I’d like, but that could be a sign that I need to get a beefier CPU. (The single-core AMD CPU on my desktop dates back to 2005, and my netbook runs on a VIA processor that’s a LOT slower than an Intel Atom.) Thunderbird itself is pretty easy to set up to sync with Gmail’s IMAP protocol, which gives you two-way sync for messages and folders. Add an extension called Zindus, and you can sync your Google contacts as well.

Thunderbird w Lightning But where Thunderbird really shines is when you add an extension called Lightning. This Thunderbird extension is the official successor to Mozilla’s standalone calendar app Sunbird. It’s basically Sunbird integrated into Thunderbird. In addition to the tabs you already have in Thunderbird for mail, you now have calendar and task tabs well, and a calendar sidebar off to the right of your main message pane. Getting this to sync with Google calendar is a little tricky, especially if you have a lot of calendars to sync, but once it’s set up it works pretty well.

Given how much goes into getting Thunderbird/Lightning set up and working properly, you want to use the freeware MozBackup to back up your settings once you get it the way you like it. Put that back up file in your Dropbox, and then after you install Thunderbird on another PC, just “restore” and it will install all the extensions and configure everything for you.

The last piece you need for total desktop/cloud integration is Evernote. I’ve talked at length about Evernote before, so let’s just say it’s where everything that doesn’t fit anywhere else goes. Data lives in the cloud, excellent client apps for Windows, Mac, iPhone, iPad.

Other… Stuff

Of course, there are other things you might need to do that are web-oriented, but you’d rather use desktop tools if you can.

For blogging, I use Windows Live Writer. Technically, I could just use Word 2007 on documents in my Dropbox for this, but Writer is designed for blogging and is a bit easier to work with, especially when it comes to tagging posts, delayed publication dates—this article will post at 8am Mountain on a Monday morning, at which time I will likely be out for a walk—and other metablogging stuff. I’ve only used it for WordPress, but it seems to work really well for just about any blog.

Seesmic Twitter. Ah, Twitter. The sad thing about Twitter is that I used to use their website for reading and writing tweets, but they’ve added so much JavaScript crap to it that I now prefer native Twitter clients to their web interface. There are several native Windows clients—not Adobe Air apps—for Twitter, and some of them, like Blu, are gorgeous examples of what the Windows user interface is really capable of. But for day to day twittering—both tweeting and reading tweets—I prefer Seesmic for Windows. Again, this isn’t the Seesmic Air version, it’s the native Windows client. Not only does this give me the fancy schmancy Aero glass effects, but it’s lighter and faster than anything running in a runtime.

For music, the options used to be a lot better than they are now. I used to use LaLa to upload my iTunes library and stream it from anywhere, but Apple bought them and is shutting LaLa down. I used to use Simplify Music 2 to stream music directly from my desktop over the net to anywhere, but that is shutting down too. For now, the best I can do is Pandora. I paid the $36 a year for Pandora One, which gives me higher bitrate music, unlimited listening—versus the 40 hours a month I probably wouldn’t hit anyway—and most importantly, no ads. I’ll probably also install iTunes eventually on my wee netbook for library sharing, but there’s no rush. I’m kinda holing that Apple will integrate LaLa’s streaming into the iTunes 10 they inevitably release along with the iPhone HD in June or the next generation iPods this fall.

When In Doubt, Remote

Sometimes, there is just no substitute for going back to the “mothership”—my desktop PC. While my data is as cloud-based as I can get it and individual computers have been somewhat abstracted out, some things, like managing ebooks in Calibre or my iTunes library, have to be done on the desktop. (Yes, I know I should be able to use Dropbox to manage my Calibre library from multiple locations, but I have not been able to get this to work.) For this, I use two different tools.

When I’m at home on my netbook, I just use Windows Remote Desktop. It’s fast and allows me to use my netbook as though it was my desktop. The experience is so fluid, in fact, that I use a different color for Aero glass on my desktop than I do on my netbook so I can tell at a glance which one I’m using.

When I’m on the go, I use LogMeIn. This gives me the ability to remote into my desktop from any web-enabled PC without paying a monthly fee. When I get my iPad, I’ll go ahead and spring for the $30 to buy LogMeIn Ignition, which will allow me to control my desktop via the XGA touchscreen of the iPad. When you consider how much of my data is automatically and instantly replicated on all of my computing devices, this also overcomes many of the objections to the iPad for not being a “real” computer. When I need a “real” PC, I can just remote into my desktop from the iPad and finish up whatever I need to do, then go back to the iPad.