Thursday, November 4, 2010

Consumer Cloud

With all this talk of cloud services these days, I thought that I would focus on a cloud related subject that you don't hear much about. Consumer cloud.

The Internet is all a buzz about cloud computing where companies outsource their IT needs to third party vendors whom they pay on a per usage basis. If the app isn't used much, then the bill is low.

What you don't hear much is how cloud computing has trickled down to the consumer, usually in the form of a freemium based file sharing service. I would like to explore this new market by reviewing three players in this space;, Evernote, and Ubuntu One.

The service is quite similar to the more original which was recently acquired by Facebook. You upload files to a centralized service that you can share or collaborate with those whom you invite.

My biggest problem with the service is poor usability. The user experience for invitees is misleading which results in a huge abandonment rate. The user gets an email notifying them that someone has shared something with them and inviting them to click a URL to see the documents. What they are presented with at the resulting page is vague and leads them to believe that they already have an account here when they are really just registering in order to claim access to the shared documents and folders. Everyone that I invited to use the service during my evaluation abandoned the process before accessing any documents.

I am including Evernote in my list of consumer cloud vendors but their freemium model only allows you to type in notes by hand. You cannot upload files of any type when using the free service. Also, you can share files and folders with others but you cannot collaborate. Their access is always read-only. These problems go away when you upgrade to the paid subscription. They have a web based interface but they also have native apps for Windows and Mac OS machines. They also have an iPhone app.

The last vendor that I wish to tell you about is the Ubuntu One service. Unlike Evernote's aggressive freemium model, Ubuntu One has a kinder and gentler model where you get access to most of the core functionality with the free service. You can share and collaborate files of any type and folders with others. You can also store your contacts and notes in the service. The limit is on the amount of storage which is a generous 2GB. After that, you have to pay to be able to get more storage. Their iPhone app is also only for paid subscribers.

Ubuntu is also a distribution of the open source operating system otherwise known as Linux. They take the Debian distribution and customize it for a friendly user experience that, in my humble opinion, rivals the ease of use similar to the Mac OS and surpasses recent versions of Microsoft's consumer OS offerings.

Although I am a frequent user of operating systems made by Microsoft and Apple, Ubuntu is my OS of personal choice. So, I really like Ubuntu One because of its deep integration with the Ubuntu OS. In the file explorer GUI, you simply mark each file or folder to synchronize with Ubuntu One. There is a notes app called Tomboy Notes and any note that you write there will get synchronized with Ubuntu One if you configure your account to do so. Evolution is the default email client that comes with Ubuntu. Not only does it handle multiple POP3 and IMAP email accounts, Evolution also handles calendering, contacts, memos, and tasks. With the latest version of Ubuntu (Maverick Meercat) any contacts that you store in the Ubuntu One Couch DB list also get synchronized with the Ubuntu One service. There is also a web interface so you can share files with your non-Linux friends too. You decide who can access your uploaded files but your contacts and notes are private.