The term cloud computing often conjures imagines as ephemeral as the fluffy, gassy powder puffs from which it gets its name, and is usually accompanied by a lazy yawn. This is a habit to break, as cloud computing is likely to become a major part of your digital life -- if it isn't already.
Soon, huge swaths of your digital life will reside on discs you will never physically see. The software you work with each day, may too, be installed on machines you will never buy. Cloud computing takes the physical components of computing out of our homes and leaves it in big, ugly data centres, thousands of miles away.
Dropbox is a perfect way to dip your toe into this concept of cloud computing, without committing to handing over all of your personal data, but in a way that should help you see just how much easier and convenient it will be for you when everything is stored remotely.
How does it work?
Dropbox is a cloud-storage service that offers its customers chunks of storage space on its servers. New customers are given 2GB for free, with options to expand this by 100GB for US$99 per year, 200GB for US$199 or 500GB for US$499 per year. There are also business options with terabytes of space available for multiple users to share.
When you sign up, you create a password-secured account and can start saving files to it immediately. Dropbox offers a number of default folder suggestions, but you are free to delete these and create more of your own, if you like.
You can also assign sharing options to each folder, indicating whether they are visible only to you, or whether other users can access them via a web link. If you create a shared folder, all parties can add and modify the files in the folder, which is great for collaborating on a project.
The best part of using Dropbox is the way it keeps files in sync across any number of different devices, regardless of whether it's a phone, tablet or computer.
If you're on a computer (PC or Mac) you can download a Dropbox application that acts just like a regular folder in your system. You can save files you create there, drag and drop files into it, and delete files from it. Whatever changes you make to this folder are duplicated in the cloud and on the other devices where you have Dropbox installed.
If you have a smartphone, you can choose to save all new photos you take on the phone directly to Dropbox. Just remember, photographs are saved in full-resolution, so you can chew up your free 2GB pretty quickly with photo uploads.
Backing up files to Dropbox will seem like a pretty mundane task -- until you need to find them. This is the 'ah-ha!' moment of cloud computing: the moment when you realise that the photo or Word Document that you presumed was lost when you hard drive failed has actually been backed up and is accessible on your tablet, your new computer or a friend's laptop via a web browser.
If you start using Dropbox as your default save location for work documents, regardless of the file format, you'll be surprised how quickly Dropbox becomes the most indispensable tool in your work life.
We've used Dropbox as our example of cloud computing, but there is actually several similar services which you might prefer. Samsung recently acquired Box, a Dropbox competitor, and Google has Drive, which integrates with Google Docs.
All of these services offer very similar features, so feel free to check out what is on offer from each, then start syncing!