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Travel Smarter 2012: How cloud services are changing the way we travel
One of the most often hyped facets of the upcoming tech industry is the concept of the Cloud. The term is often used to describe a set of services or functions that exist online and independent of a user's devices, allowing one synchronous access to information and other content across multiple web-based clients. While that sounds simple in theory, the concept has remained a bit nebulous for many consumers, who still haven't connected with how cloud services and computing work or how it can benefit them in the long run.
As a bit of an earlier adopter and a self confessed gadget geek, I've been excited about the potential for the Cloud for some time. And over the past few months I've jumped into the technology with both feet, seeing now the of what it can bring to the table, as well as how it can benefit us as we travel.
One of the simplest and most productive cloud services in existence is Dropbox, which has been around since 2008, but really seems to have taken off in the past year or two. Dropbox is quite simply a cloud storage solution that gives you the ability to quickly and easily share files with friends, family, and coworkers. It can be accessed through the web or by installing a small program on your computer, which then automatically syncs your designated Dropbox folder and files to the cloud. There are also apps available for Android, iOS, and Blackberry which grant access to those same files on your mobile device.
Dropbox is a handy tool for travelers who may have a need to access their files while on the road or might want to share something with those back home. It is particularly handy for grabbing important work documents while away from the office or getting the most updated version of a file that is still being worked on by co-workers. The service is great for working collaboratively with others while not in the same location, and it allows for the sharing of documents that are too large to attach to an email. Dropbox photo albums make it a snap to share images from your travels while still on the road, and it is a great place to save a back-up of the manuscript you've been writing about your big travel adventures.
One of the biggest entries into the cloud services arena in 2011 came courtesy of Apple, who introduced iCloud for iOS, Mac, and Windows users. iCloud does both more and less than Dropbox, and has proven itself to be very useful for those who are firmly ensconced in the Apple ecosystem. The service allows for seamless and almost instantaneous syncing of apps, music, and data between devices while also keeping your contacts, calendars, and "to do" lists completely up to date. It also provides cloud storage for Apple's iWork suite of productivity software, which much like Dropbox, gives you access to those files from any iCloud capable device. Unlike Dropbox however, you can't simply drag-and-drop files from your computer and have them saved to the cloud.
iCloud has several unique features which can be a direct benefit to travelers, not the least of which is the "Find My iPhone" service. Despite the name indicating otherwise, this service allows iCloud users to locate not only their phones, but also iPad or Macintosh computers as well. Being able to track down a device that you've left behind in a cab or in a restaurant can be a real lifesaver, but should you find that your electronic toys have fallen into the wrong hands, you can also remotely lock the device or even wipe its memory completely clean.
The iCloud photostream is also a great option for travelers, who are increasingly using their iPhone as their primary camera while on the go. A few years ago I would have laughed at that idea, but the iPhone 4S sports a camera that is on par with many dedicated point-and-shoot models, and when connected to photostream any photo you take is also automatically uploaded to the cloud. This service essentially provides a backup of your photos immediately after they are taken while simultaneously making them available for viewing on your iPad. Photostream also syncs with your computer's photo library, integrating the photos into your favorite editing program. It is a very slick process that anyone who has lost a camera mid-trip will definitely appreciate.
As if all of those iCloud features weren't enough, its functionality is extended a bit further through the use of a free iPhone app called Find Friends. While not strictly speaking a part of iCloud itself, the app does use some of the same technology to allow you to track the location of friends and family who are also iPhone users. When traveling together, this can be an invaluable tool, as it helps eliminate any issues that arise when trying to find each other in a large crowd. The app is especially useful in places like Disney World, a national park, and large museums or shopping malls. The service is purely optional and can even be used over a specifically defined temporary basis, such as a two-week trip through Europe.
iCloud is a free service that provides 5GB of storage. Additional storage can be purchased for a monthly fee.
Microsoft's entry into the consumer cloud services space is known as Skydrive, and it shares a lot of things in common with Dropbox and iCloud. Skydrive lets you sync any and all files onto a virtual hard drive and then access them from anywhere that you can connect to the Internet. It works great with the Microsoft Office suite of productivity tools, and even allows multiple users to create and edit documents at the same time. In short, it is a great collaboration tool for work that also has plenty of application for our personal lives as well.
Skydrive sets itself apart from the other services in two very distinct ways. The first is in the amount of free storage that Microsft makes available to users. Where Dropbox is content to offer up 2GB of storage and iCloud provides a fairly limited 5GB, MS gives Windows users 25GB of storage, which is a lot of room for Word documents, photos, and even video. That storage space is available not only on your computer but also on iPhone, Android, and of course, Windows Phone devices.
The other area in which Skydrive distinguishes itself is in how tightly woven it is into the Windows operating system. Not only does it integrate nicely with the Office web apps, it also can be set-up to automatically sync a user's most important files to the cloud, providing access on any web-connected computer in the world. Skydrive access is even built into the latest editions of Windows Live Photo Gallery and Movie Maker, making it an incredibly simple affair to share images and video from your latest vacation while you're still on that vacation. It is a powerful service, and one that Microsoft is already improving with Windows 8, which will likely be launched later this year.
Because of how well Skydrive is integrated into Windows, carrying your laptop with you on a trip means that you're also bringing a full fledged photo and film studio along, giving you unprecedented power for sharing your adventures with others. Image and video editing is simpler and more powerful then ever before, and Skydrive allows you to document and share the travel experience as it happens. Users even have very precise control over who exactly sees the files they share, allowing restrictions at designated levels.
Unlike the other cloud services, Skydrive doesn't currently have an option to expand its storage capacity, though it its defense 25GB is fairly generous.
Of course, an Internet connection is required to take full advantage of the cloud, but these days, those connections are a lot easier to find than they once were. On the other hand, we often travel to get away from the trappings of modern life. In that case, the cloud is still useful when we return home too.
[flickr image via quinn.anya]