Online Storage: The Next Generation

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - So help me, I like floppy disks. Technologically, they're primordial. But they're also cheap, intuitive, and almost universally compatible. And puny though their 1.44MB capacity may be these days, they can hold more than a few spreadsheets, text files, or even digital photos. That's why the much-maligned floppy has remained my favorite way to shuttle files from computer to computer.

Last year, I thought that might change. Free virtual drive services such as I-drive.com (www.i-drive.com) and X:drive Inc. (www.xdrive.com) had hit the scene. Signing up for one of them netted you a Web-based, password-protected "drive" with 20 or more megabytes of space, accessible from any Internet-connected PC. Unfortunately, these services' initial incarnations were so slow and ungainly that I let my accounts languish for months.

Recently, though, the early contenders have received sweeping makeovers, and new rivals continue to pop up. It seemed time to give virtual drive services a second chance. So I revisited I-drive and Xdrive to see what was new, and signed up for accounts at two relative latecomers, My Docs Online (www.mydocsonline.com) and Driveway Corp. (www.driveway.com).

Have virtual drives changed for the better? Absolutely. The best are now easier to use, more powerful, and generally handier for moving documents between your work and home PCs and for zapping files to distant friends and colleagues.

Driveway's my current favorite, mostly because of its straightforward look and feel. Still, even the new, improved world of online storage isn't free of technical snafus and half-baked features.

Foraging For Storage

With virtual drives, the word virtual might as well be a code name for slow and small. Performance, of course, hinges on the speed of your Net connection--a cable modem or DSL line provides maximum oomph. Nor will capacity rival that of your hard disk: The services offer anywhere from 20MB (My Docs Online) to 50MB (I-drive) for your files. If you need more room, though, you can probably get it. Every service except I-drive lets you increase your quota to at least 100MB, either by paying a monthly fee or as a reward for "good deeds" such as getting buddies to register.

Though Web browsers do lots of things well, heavy-duty file management still isn't one of them. The browser-based interfaces offered by these services are okay for moving a file or two at a time, but they're underpowered for wrangling droves of documents or whole directories. That's why all the services offer some kind of desktop integration that makes your virtual drive act more like a real one.

Xdrive's integration goes the furthest: After you download and install the service's 1.3MB desktop utility, your Xdrive space shows up as a drive in Windows. File management becomes a snap with Windows Explorer, and you can even reach your Xdrive from any Open or Save dialog box in any Windows application.

But while this utility is slick and effective, it's incompatible with Windows 2000, my operating system of choice. A Win 2000 version is in the works, but it isn't due for several months.

For the time being, I'll make do with Web Folders, which is a similar feature offered by Driveway, I-drive, and My Docs Online. Web Folders aren't for Microsoft-phobes, however: They work only if you have Internet Explorer 5.0 or above installed on your PC. And even then, your virtual drive shows up only within My Computer, Windows Explorer, and Microsoft Office 2000.

Features, Features

The first wave of virtual drives suffered from a severe case of clone-itis:

Features scarcely differed from service to service. With the new generation, that has changed. For example, every service now has a different approach to file sharing. I-drive works especially well if you want to disperse files to the Web at large. However, if you want to grant password-protected access to a few people, Driveway's implementation is the best of the bunch. (When our office's wide area network was misbehaving recently, I used it to deposit files where a coworker across the country could get to them.)Both Driveway and I-drive double as Web scrapbooks--you can snag any Web page on the fly and store it for future reference. I-Drive also has Playlists and Photo Albums, which let you organize and enjoy MP3 music clips and photos.

Granted, these features are fairly spartan right now. But they point the way toward a future in which virtual drives are as much activity centers as way stations for files in transit.

Then there's My Docs Online's wireless phone features, which let you use a Web-enabled phone to send files from your virtual drive to any e-mail address.

Why most people would want that capability is unclear, though. (To be fair, quandaries of this sort are all too typical with Web services that dabble in wireless access.) And at least with my phone and wireless service, the process of establishing an Internet connection of any sort is so byzantine and flaky, it took me 15 minutes to log in and send a single file.

On The Fritz

If you ask me, the one overarching feature every virtual drive service should be shooting for is rock-solid reliability. Judging from my experiences, there is substantial room for improvement. One fine day, for example, I found myself locked out of my I-drive account. Had I forgotten my account name or password?

Nope. The drive remained incommunicado a day later, so I e-mailed I-drive's tech support department. The automated response I received referred vaguely to "service performance issues" and asked me to try again. So I did--repeatedly--and another day elapsed before I could get in. Even then, the photo album refused at times to display thumbnail images. (I-drive blames these glitches on unexpectedly heavy demand for the service.)During another weekend, Xdrive suddenly became almost impenetrably sluggish: It took me a minute and a half to log in to my account, and once I was in, icons moseyed onto the screen one by one, as if the computer were running in slow motion. Not until Monday morning did the service behave like its old, relatively peppy self again.

At least I didn't have any of my vital files socked away at Internet FileZone.

A predecessor of Driveway, the service was shut down recently, forcing its customers to rescue their files and deposit them elsewhere. And you can bet that FileZone won't be the last virtual drive service to perish. To paraphrase what Pogo said about life itself--and despite what Web start-ups may tell you--most free Internet services ain't nohow permanent.

The lesson here: Technical hiccups and other nasty surprises are an ugly fact of life on the Web. So treat virtual drives accordingly. Don't store your only copy of an irreplaceable (or even semi-important) file in one; and always have an alternative means of moving files on hand for emergencies. My strategy?

Driveway hasn't failed me yet, but I'm keeping a stash of blank floppies tucked away just in case. You can't be too careful.

Contact PC World executive editor at websavvy@pcworld.com.

New on the Net...

Free ISP Shakeout: In August, I looked at free ISPs Freewwweb and WorldSpy.

Their relatively unobtrusive on-screen ads made them more tempting than other no-cost services, but I decided that I wasn't about to ditch my for-pay provider (see www.pcworld.com/aug2000/web_savvy). Good thing I didn't--both services have called it quits. Before they ceased operations, the ISPs turned their customers over to Juno, a competitor with more in-your-face ads...

PlanetAll Gone: Speaking of Web services going bye-bye, Amazon.com Inc. recently sent me an e-mail declaring that it was "pleased to announce" the integration of certain features from its PlanetAll online information manager into Amazon itself...and that PlanetAll was being shuttered. Pleased? As a PlanetAll member, I'm glum. And anyone who relied on PlanetAll's now-defunct address book (once touted as the "Last You'll Ever Need") is out of luck...

Musical Muse: Tired of your old tunes? Head to MuBu.com, select your favorite genre (from gospel to arena rock), listen to a few sound clips, and rate them.

The site will recommend artists and CDs to match your style--and in my case, it scored. The only catch: This multimedia-rich site requires three browser plug-ins... Check Out WebCheck: Little floating applets that search the Web are everywhere; WebCheck (www.webtop.com) is yet another, but it includes some unique twists. You can drag text from any application into WebCheck's search window; in return, you'll get related Web sites, news stories, and corporate alerts. The more words WebCheck has to work with, the more relevant the results--you can even feed it a whole Word document if you like. Google (www.google.com) remains my favorite search engine, but the free WebCheck download is worth a try.

Gimme five

Sites for Gadget Junkies

Wireless phones, PDAs, and digital cameras are useful, sure. But they're also great technology toys. And the Web is chock-full of nifty sites that can help you buy and use all sorts of cool tools.

1. ConsumerReview Inc. (consumerreview.com): The real people who evaluate gadgets and other consumer products here are noticeably more incisive than their counterparts at rival sites such as Deja.com.

2. The Imaging Resource (www. imaging-resource.com): Everything you ever wanted to know about digital cameras and then some, including reviews, specs, and sample photos galore.

3. Tucows.com Inc. PDA (pda.tucows.com): Tucows' palmtop software portal brims with software downloads, product reviews, and daily news bulletins for Palm, Windows CE, and Psion fans--and even Newton diehards.

4. EdgeReview (www.edgereview. com): An aptly named destination with news and reviews about wafer-thin MP3 players, $400 remote controls, and other cutting-edge gizmos.

5. WirelessAdvisor.com LLC: This site for wireless phone advice features articles, a glossary, and lively message forums that compensate for the spotty links to service providers.

FYI

Is web shopping a dying fad? Probably not, but a new survey says that the percentage of Net users who have made a recent online purchase is down slightly from last year.

Source: Greenfield Online

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