The Disappearing Diskette
I am so used to free e-mail services that I’ve come to take them for granted. Rather than lugging my laptop on business trips, I use free e-mail services as a gateway to my corporate mail. Unfortunately, when I want to share a file with someone, I’m still patting pockets and diving through desk drawers scrambling for a spare floppy. These days it’s more likely that my laptop has an Internet connection than a handy diskette. That’s why I’m excited about free Internet file services.
You’ve probably seen them: services that offer file storage on the Internet for free. Your Web browser uploads and downloads files, and the only "cost" is if you get annoyed by a barrage of banner advertising.
Similar to free e-mail sites, each time an Internet file service customer clicks on one of the Web page advertisements a few pennies flow from the advertiser to the service to pay for the disk space and Web administration.
It’s a boon for users with a network computer or Apple Computer’s iMac. The lack of a floppy drive -- despite being a conscious design choice -- can make it difficult to share files, graphics and other information. One entrepreneur viewed the lack of a floppy drive as an opportunity: He launched a Web site called iMacFloppy.com. In less than six months, the two-employee company was relaunched as a platform-neutral site called NetFloppy.com. It was later bought by Xoom.com for $1.65 million.
This model has potential beyond simple file servers. Imagine having access to your contact and calendar data without a PC or notebook. Several services have popped up that combine free e-mail services with services similar to a personal information manager (PIM) such as Microsoft Corp.’s Outlook or IBM Corp.’s Lotus Organizer. These services mean you no longer need a PC or Palm Pilot when checking contact and calendar information: All you need is access to the Internet and a browser. The obvious problem is that any Web-based solution requires either a sophisticated synchronization utility or double entry of contact and schedule information. Fortunately, many emerging Internet PIMs provide synchronization tools that use existing calendar and contact information rather than trying to keep both services up-to-date manually.
Looking for more? Do you want access to all the programs on your desktop without the hassle of a virtual private network (VPN) or remote access solution? One company, SkyDesk (www.skydesk.com), is working on a service that permits any Internet connection and any browser to access a mirror image of your desktop. If you want to use your system while you’re away from the office, simply point to the SkyDesk server and run your applications on a "virtual desktop." The SkyDesk server synchronizes with your "home" system at regular intervals so you can access programs and data wherever you are, no matter what desktop you are using.
With all these advanced services, two nagging concerns remain: security and performance. No matter how many privacy guarantees and security tools are in place, I’m unlikely to post confidential or sensitive information at a public Web file service. Still, each new service takes security into account, making sure no one has unauthorized access to your files and guaranteeing that your files are backed up and available. The performance of an Internet-based file service will never be the same as a local or network file share. But with the advent of broadband services to residential and business customers, sharing the files won’t be the drag that it was over conventional 28.8 kbps modems using FTP.
As Web-based mail services matured during the past year, the offerings gradually became commodities; and anyone with a Web server could buy and deploy a prepackaged Web e-mail service. The popularity and utility of free Internet file services is likely to mushroom in the same way. It’s logical to expect that we will soon see a market for shrink wrapped file services for anyone with a Web server. After all, anyone with Windows NT 4.0’s Explorer already has access to folders served by a Web server rather than a traditional file server.
Many IT managers may be ready to write off Web-based file servers as a niche tool -- not ready for prime time in a production environment. I suspect they would be the same people who said free e-mail services were worth exactly what you paid for them. I wonder if they have a spare diskette they could loan me? --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at email@example.com.