It used to be that whenever I needed to make sure I had access to particular documents or other files, I would burn a CD, which I would then take with me to my new location. This was nice, because it ensured I had a copy of the file I wanted – something I couldn’t guarantee if the file was stored on my computer’s hard drive – but was a poor solution in many ways.
First, after burning the CD, I wasn’t able to update the copy, as this was before I’d purchased a CD burner that could burn rewritable discs. Second, if I did make any changes to the document while away from my computer, the copy I’d burned to CD was instantly obsolete. Eventually I started using my Gmail account as a temporary solution. I’d email myself a copy of the document, then download it wherever I was going. After I’d made changes, I simply emailed myself an updated version of the document. This was a better solution, as it allowed me to update the document, but was again poor because I ran the risk of grabbing a document that wasn’t the newest version.
Happily, as technology has progressed, it has become possible to not only save your documents to the cloud, but to access them from practically anywhere you have Internet access, on not just desktop and laptop computers, but portable devices as well. One of the most popular ways of doing this is with an automatic backup and synchronization utility that is available for Mac, Windows and Linux, as well as portable devices such as the iPhone, iPad, Blackberry and Android.
I won’t go into the technology behind Dropbox, because it isn’t the only such solution (and other solutions work in slightly different ways), but Dropbox is a good example of the technology, and the idea is a simple one. Whenever you save a document in a particular location, or identify a document as one you want your synchronization utility to “watch,” that document is saved to the cloud. In the case of a utility like Dropbox, your files are saved to the Dropbox servers, which you can access with their client. You can access the files via a web browser, or simply let the Dropbox software do its job.
What does it do? Well, in addition to saving your documents, it also watches them. If you ever make changes to the document, the program notices and updates the copy stored on the servers. In this way, if you’re away from home, you can log into the website, and when you download a copy you’ll know it’s the most recent version. But it gets better. Since Dropbox (and other programs for backing up and synchronizing your documents and other files), can be installed on many different types of computers or portable devices, you aren’t limited to having one “master” copy located on your main computer. No, you can have that same “master” document on all your devices. Once the software is installed and your credentials entered in, every copy on all your devices is automatically synchronized. Here is a good example of how it would work:
1. You create a document on your computer. When you save it, you save it in your Dropbox folder, or otherwise identify it to your synchronization utility that it is a document you want to have watched.
2. You install the software on a second computer, or on a mobile device. Once you do this and synchronize it, all the documents created on your main computer become available on the second computer or device.
3. You modify the document on your second device. Doing so not only updates the copy of the document on the second device, but on the version stored in the cloud. So now you have two new copies, on the second device and in the cloud, and an old copy, stored on your original computer.
4. You log back into your original computer and since Dropbox and other programs synchronize automatically whenever they’re running, it realizes the copy in the cloud is different from the original copy. It compares when each copy was last updated, and updates it to the newest version. So now when you open the copy on your first computer, it is up-to-date with any changes you made.
Using a program like Dropbox is simple, yet the results are powerful. Utilities like Dropbox, designed to make it easy to access and synchronize your files from multiple devices, do more than just that. They free you from being tethered to wherever your document originated. You no longer have to email copies back and forth between home and work, or save files to a USB flash drive at the end of the day. Simply make your changes to the copy of the document, no matter which device you’re on, knowing that the document you started with was the most current version, and that once those changes are made, every copy on all your other devices will be updated to the new version as soon as they synchronize with the server. There could certainly be issues, of course (a user making changes to a document that hasn’t been synchronized because of a lack of an Internet connection is the biggest risk), but the advantages are huge. File access and synchronization is fast, easy and if you don’t have gigabytes of information to deal with, relatively cheap – and in many cases free. Individuals and businesses alike are using programs like Dropbox. Isn’t it time you did, too?