Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Moving my life to the cloud

http://www.flickr.com/photos/clspeace/2250488434/
I'm in the process of moving my (computing) life entirely to the cloud -- no more laptop: just a phone, tablet (which I use rarely) and a Chromebook Pixel. My three-year-old MacBook Pro is about to croak, and it seems like now is the time to migrate everything to the cloud, so I can free myself from having to maintain a bunch of files, music, photos, applications, and backups locally. I'd really like to be in a place where I could throw my laptop out a moving vehicle and not care a bit about what happens to my data. Still, there are some challenges ahead.

The Chromebook Pixel itself is a sweet piece of kit. The keyboard and trackpad are nearly as good as my Mac, and the screen resolution is simply unreal: you CANNOT see the pixels (ironic choice of product name; as if the next version of a Mac would be the "MacBook Virus"). It boots in 10 seconds. Hell, the other day I did a complete OS upgrade (switching from the beta to the dev channel), which took no more than 10 seconds -- including the reboot. The Pixel comes with 1 TB (!) of Google Drive storage, so at this point there's no excuse for not storing all my stuff in the cloud -- this is more space than any laptop I've ever owned.

But you only get to use Chrome!?!? Working at Google, I spend about 70% of my time in Chrome already, so the environment is pretty much exactly what I need. The other 30% of my time is spent ssh'ing into a Linux machine to do software development. The Secure Shell Chrome extension provides a full-on terminal emulator within the browser. I pretty much only use the shell and vim when doing development, so this setup is fine for me.

Since I left academia, I don't have much need for writing papers in LaTeX and doing fancy PowerPoint slides anymore. If those were still major uses of my time, I'd have to find another solution. Google Docs works perfectly well for the kind of writing and presentations I do these days; in fact, the sharing capabilities turn out to be more important than fancy formatting.

What about working offline!?!?! Who the hell ever works offline anymore? I certainly don't. Even on airplanes, the majority of the time I have WiFi. I generally can't get any work done without an Internet connection, so optimizing for "offline" use seems silly to me. If I'm really offline, I'll read a book.

Music? Google Play Music and the Amazon Cloud Player work great. I have a huge music library (some 1,200 albums) which I keep in both places.

Movies and TV shows? It's true that iTunes has the best selection, but what's available on Google Play and Amazon Instant Video is pretty good. I mostly watch movies and TV on my actual TV (crazy, I know) but for "on the road" I think streaming content will work well enough. There's no real offline video playback on the Chromebook as far as I know; for that I can use my Android tablet though. Netflix apparently works fine on the Chromebook, although I unsubscribed from Netflix when they started screwing people over on their pricing.

Of course, it's not all roses. A few pain points, so far:

Migrating my photo library to the cloud was more painful than I had hoped. I have around 70 GB of pictures and videos taken over the years, and wanted to get it onto Google Drive so I'd have direct access to it from the Chromebook. This involved installing the Google Drive Mac app which allowed me to copy everything over, although the upload took a day or so, and it wasn't clear at first if everything was syncing correctly. (I also had to make sure not to sync the photo library on my other machines which had the Drive app installed.)

Managing photos in the cloud still kind of sucks. I'm not happy with any of the cloud-based photo library management solutions that I've found. I have a Flickr Pro account which I use for sharing select pictures with family and friends, but I don't feel comfortable uploading all of my photos to Flickr. I could use Google+, however, it's more focused on sharing rather than large library management. I am not sure what is going on with Picasa these days. Dropbox is another option, which I use for general files, but its photo management is pretty rudimentary as well. For now I'm going to make do with the bare-bones photo support in Google Drive and think about a better way to manage this. What's cool is that I already take all of my photos on my phone which automatically syncs then to both Google Drive and Dropbox, so there's never a need to physically plug the phone in to anything.

Editing plain text files is -- surprisingly -- kind of hard. About the only use I have for plain text files (apart from coding) anymore is writing paper reviews -- I read a PDF in one window; fill in the plain-ASCII review form for HotCRP in the other. There are a couple of Chrome extensions with bare-bones text editors, but it's a far cry from a full-fledged editor. I am experimenting with Neutron Drive, which is a pretty cool editor/IDE Chrome Extension which uses Google Drive in the backend. Maybe I'll have to change my habits and just fill in my reviews in HotCRP directly (see above about not being able to get any work done offline).

Where to keep my really private stuff? By which I mean porn, of course. Or tax returns. Or anything I don't want (or can't) store in any of the cloud services. This article from VentureBeat does a good job at summarizing the policies of the popular cloud storage providers, but the upshot is that all of them have some mechanism to either take down objectionable content or report it to law enforcement.

What I'd really like is to set up a "private cloud", perhaps running a server at home which I could then access (securely) over the web. There are several solutions for private encrypted cloud storage out there (like Arq and Duplicati), but most of them require some form of specialized client (which won't work on ChromeOS any time soon). I guess I could run a WebDAV server or something on a local box or even a machine in the cloud which I could access through the browser. Still, I'm not sure what to do about this yet. It seems insane to me that it's 2013 and we still don't know how to get file sync right.

Disclaimer: Everything in this post is my personal opinion and does not represent the view of my employer.

33 comments:

  1. For managing/storing photos, I'd give a shoutout to SmugMug. They have unlimited space, and an open API with a fairly large ecosystem of apps and plugins. They are geared more towards pro-photographers, but I've found them great for general use, too.

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  2. even latex isn't a problem anymore with services like writelatex.com, latexlabs, and so on.

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  3. Photos and music are still a big issue for me. Spotify does not seem ready for a Web-only experience.

    However, I agree with you on the rest. A step closer to a cloud-only experience.

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  4. A year ago, I would have actually thought about doing this, but given that Google has recently shut down two of my favorite cloud-based services, iGoogle and Reader, I really can't feel confident that the services I have come to rely on will even be there in a year or two. How will you deal with it when your favorite cloud-based service announces that in 3 months it isn't going to be there anymore?

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    1. Anyone who uses an online social network, email, or reads a website regularly is already dependent on the service provider keeping that service alive. If all of your favorite websites suddenly shut down, what would you do with your computer? Play Solitaire?

      I think the idea that not having the software installed locally means you are protecting yourself from service deprecation is misguided. You are only protecting yourself in a very narrow sense, given how much we already depend on cloud services for much of what we do.

      So I recognize the risk here, but that risk is present regardless of whether you go "all cloud" or not.

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  5. I can't imagine placing so much trust in a single company. What's your backup strategy?

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    1. You already place "so much trust" in whatever company built the laptop and OS you are using today, though you might not realize it.

      I am not concerned about Google suddenly shutting down my Drive account. At worst they could shut it down and give me some length of time to get my stuff off of Drive, which would be an inconvenience, but hardly something that keeps me awake at night.

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    2. Re hardware and software, I think we're talking about different types of trust. Even though I have to trust the providers of my hardware and software, I can still run whatever I want on whatever device I want and do whatever I want to protect my data.

      I wouldn't trust google or another company to protect those freedoms.

      Shutting down drive would be one possibility, but google could lock you out of your account due to a mistaken identity, decide you're violating its terms of service, change its terms of service on a whim, decide that only Chrome OS devices could use google drive, or do whatever the hell it wants whenever it wants. Not that those scenarios are likely, but they're certainly possible.

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    3. First of all, it's not really true that you can "run whatever you want on whatever device you want and do whatever you want to protect your data". Hardware is getting more and more locked down over time, in part due to pressure on OS and device vendors to conform to concerns by movie studios about using "unsecured" devices to pirate content. Apple does NOT let you "run whatever you want" on its devices -- for example, iOS apps have to come from the App Store. You cannot generally "do whatever you want to protect your data" when you're talking about the data on a mobile device which is being magically backed up either to a Mac, PC, or to Apple's iCloud service. So you might be right for *some* devices, but certainly not in general. This problem is not new to the Chromebook.

      If Google locks me out of my Google account, I have problems regardless of whether I choose to use a Chromebook or not. (As far as I can tell, my Chromebook would continue to work just fine for accessing non-Google sites, though I'd lose the ability to sync my bookmarks. I would have this problem using Chrome on my Mac as well.)



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  6. I second the comment above about Google abandoning popular products/services. After the Google Reader debacle, there is no way I would rely on any of their products for long-term storage. What happens when you have 1 TB of data with them and they decide they aren't making enough money from the service so it's going to shut down?

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    1. You download it and upload it to a competitor?

      Fun? No. Possible? Yes.

      Also let's remember also that while Google Reader being shut down definitely stings, Reader vs. Drive isn't really a fair comparison since people actually *pay* for Drive. That's not to say that Google will *never* shut down Drive, but they are certainly going to treat the service more gingerly than a free freebie service like Reader.

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  7. 1) agree with comments about trust
    2) you are gonna pay without offline storage. Please report back in 6 months. I'll take my 100-200GB of Dropbox storage on every machine I own over this any day.

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    1. What do you mean by "you are gonna pay"? What do I need offline storage for, exactly, when I don't intend to access it when I'm offline?

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  8. "If I'm really offline, I'll read a book."

    How about an ebook when you're offline? Who carries paper books nowadays?

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    1. Of course I meant an eBook. I use the Kindle app on my Android tablet for this.

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  9. Thanks for the very interesting post. Out of curiosity, what are the key features you'd want for (large) photo library management?

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    1. I have been using iPhoto to manage my library, which lets me:
      - Rapidly import new pictures and sift through them to decide which ones I want to keep
      - Quick edit a photo to fix problems (red-eye removal; fix exposure; crop; straighten; etc.)
      - Assign a numeric rating to images (0-5 stars) so I can decide which ones I want to share
      - Organize photos into albums
      - Define "smart albums" for various things (e.g., all movie files)
      - Drag-and-drop to share a batch of photos with my family and friends on Flickr.

      I realize I can do most of these things through, say, Flickr, but I find the interface a lot slower and less elegant. So much of this is about being able to do this import-organize-publish cycle quickly.

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  10. Check out the Boxcryptor for Chrome plugin https://www.boxcryptor.com/labs/ - sounds like this is what is missing for storing your porn, err, tax documents?

    I used Boxcryptor clients on pretty much all devices I own to transparently encrypt files on my various cloud storage providers. Works with Dropbox, SugarSync, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, you name it.

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    1. Thanks! This looks like exactly what I've been looking for - will try it out.

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  11. Once or twice a year, I visit a spot (such as my parents' summer cottage) where the connectivity is barely adequate for email, but not for most cloud applications. I'm talking about "low-quality dialup" or "standing at a particular window for 3G" rather than WiFi. I think I still need a way to do stuff in those situations. However, an iPad does pretty well; an iPad plus keyboard might be just fine.

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    1. You may or may not be aware that my team at Google is trying to solve that very problem, so I have tricks up my sleeve to help with that :-)

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  12. My experience is that you cannot expect to have a good internet connection outside a few select places, such as your home or your office. Airports tend to charge ridiculous prices for barely functional WiFi (Bogota and Helsinki are the only exceptions I can remember). While some airlines have WiFi on board, I have never used one, even though I travel quite a bit these days. Hotel and conference connections are almost uniformly bad. 3G connections usually to work reasonably well, but even with a local plan, transferring tens or hundreds of gigabytes a month tends to be expensive.

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    1. Jouni, I am not sure about you, but I am almost always able to get connected. I use WiFi on airplanes regularly and it works fine, though I wouldn't want to use it for watching YouTube. Airport WiFi is pretty common in places that I visit, and even when there's no decent WiFi I can always tether with my phone. Of course this varies a lot around the world and certainly not everywhere is as well connected yet; however, see above about not really being able to work offline. Even if I used a "regular" computer it's not clear what I would do with it without Internet access.

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    2. I believe that the situation is the other way around. You usually cannot get a good quality connection reliably, except in your home country and in some relatively rare places. In the rest of the Western world, you have to rely on public WiFi networks that are often plagued with low bandwidth, weak signal strength, high latency, high packet loss and/or firewalls that block everything except http and https. Tethering is also out of question, as roaming fees can easily be hundreds of euros an hour.

      Of course, things may be easier if you are from the US instead of a small European country, especially if you do not have to travel that much abroad. Otherwise you just have to adapt your working habits to the fact that you cannot get online reliably while travelling.

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    3. My experience does not match yours, but then again, I live in Seattle. Anyway, I don't quite follow what this has to do with using a Chromebook versus a traditional laptop. If your Internet access is poor, then anything that uses the Internet is going to suck regardless of what device you use to access it. The Chromebook is no more or less effective in a poorly-connected environment unless you are really able to work offline. Since I can't work offline anyway, the Chromebook is fine for me.

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    4. For me the main difference is between using an ultrabook and using a mobile workstation, or, equivalently, between using the data in cloud and synchronizing the data with cloud. From my point of view, Chromebooks are not that much different from traditional ultrabooks such as MB Air. If you have to travel a lot in areas without good connectivity, you just select you tools and adapt your working habits accordingly.

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  13. Nice article. Two counter points:
    * Given Pixel's price tag, why not get a Macbook Air or 13 retina MBP and use Chrome exclusively if you want to live in the cloud?
    * If you are travelling abroad, especially to China where most US cloud services are blocked, especially those from Google, it's really painful to do everything in the cloud, or read eBook the entire time.

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    1. Good point about the MacBook Air. In fact 90% of my use of my MacBook is in the browser anyway, so you might ask why bother with a Chromebook. Basically, I wanted to go whole hog -- meaning, force myself to stop using the crutch of local applications on the Mac and do everything on the cloud. Part of this is an experiment to see how effective it can be.

      I agree that there are places in the world where connectivity will be difficult, but again I don't know what I would do with my computer without being able to access popular Internet sites. 99% of my work requires connectivity.

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  14. One of my biggest problems in day-to-day use is creating properly formatted Word and Powerpoint-compatible documents. Many open document features do not translate well to e.g., docx format and the same holds true for the opposite direction with e.g., shapes. Additionally, I have yet to find a webapp word processor (not Google Docs, not Zoho, nor even Office 365) that holds a candle to Word or LibreOffice Writer desktop applications. I challenge you to draw a horizontal line in the header and/or footer of a multipage document inside of a webapp. Now, the meager offerings might suffice for many people, but not for those who wish to be stylishly productive.

    Keep in mind that much of the world still uses paper and the business world continues to use desktop apps quite heavily. Interfacing with those people at the boundaries of the digital and physical is exacerbated by the limitations of Web 2.0. Now that the digital first-world population has high-bandwidth channels, I would like to see the return of the thin-client computing paradigm with a twist: where your Chromebook word processor is instantly downloaded (and cached), offering the full panoply of desktop features and playing nice with Web x.0. I think MS has been thinking about this for a while, integrating everything with Skydrive.

    Anyway Matt, I'm glad that you can figure out a way to make it work for yourself. Now we need a good paradigm for programming with voice commands and we can be rid of the laptop, netbook, chromebook, keyboard and mouse (can you say Google Glass and flexible color e-ink displays?). In 5 years the market pitch to software developers and researchers will be: Break the Google Glass Ceiling!

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    1. Thankfully nothing in my job requires me to use Microsoft Office (anymore). I would not recommend this for people who need that, although perhaps you could get away with running a Windows machine in the cloud and using a remote desktop plugin to interface with it. Sounds painful.

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  15. Matt, have you considered Owncloud to support your insatiable appetite for private/secure cloud storage? I haven't used it (yet) but I hear good things. I use Boxcryptor in Google Drive so that both my wife (Windows) and I (Linux) can access sensitive stuff from anywhere.

    If you haven't already seen it, I also think that IFTTT.com is indispensable for cloud living, especially if you can't run scripts and such on something like a chromebook.

    Lastly, thanks for the Duplicati link. I've been looking for something like this for a while.

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  16. I doubt this cloud technology will only compromise everything.

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  17. Things can get hard at first. But fast forward to after the adjustment period, it would be sheer pleasure to have moved to the cloud. That sounds a little different, but hey, what's important is the fact that the hard drive failure nightmare wouldn't scare you anymore. :)

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