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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Build Your Own iCloud

Why wait until the fall? With a little bit of ingenuity, you can build your own iCloud today.
iCloud Did you hear? iCloud’s available—well, sort of. Currently a public beta for those enrolled in the Apple developer program, iCloud is slowingly drifting our way, with official availability this fall, along with iOS 5—and perhaps that mythical iPhone 5.
But what if you can’t wait? Or what if you haven’t subscribed to the Jobsian reality distortion field? Certainly, there must be ways to replicate the iCloud experience with existing services. It turns out there are—in spades. The challenge is in paring them down. Once you do that, you can get everything you get from iCloud—and more—for free if you’re willing to mix together a cocktail of services. Here’s your shopping list.


One-Part Backup
iCloud features unlimited storage for iTunes-purchased music, apps, and iBooks, as well as unlimited storage of new photos for one month (after that they conceivably disappear, leaving you with your 1,000 most recent pics). There is, however, a 5-gigabyte cap when it comes to your iOS backup data, documents, calendars, and mail. And, as any email enthusiast can attest, 5 gigabytes can evaporate quickly, leaving little room in the cloud for other backup.

There are a dizzying number of alternatives. SugarSync or MiMedia offer comparable storage caps (5 gigabytes and 7 gigabytes, respectively) to iCloud as well as the ability to stream content you’ve uploaded: SugarSync streams music and photos, and MiMedia streams music, photos, and video. The trade-off comes in support. For now, MiMedia is only for iOS, whereas SugarSync supports iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian and Windows Mobile.

Meanwhile, storage junkies may prefer either Windows Live SkyDrive, which features 25 gigabytes of free online storage, or MediaFire, an unlimited online file repository. While you shouldn’t count on streaming your content to devices, you get a free bottomless locker into which you may drop 200-megabyte files—more than suitable for music, photos, and documents.

Our Editors’ Choice pick is DropBox. While it lacks the all-you-can-eat storage of MediaFire and the streaming prowess of MiMedia and SugarSync, its drag and drop simplicity and impressive device support—iPhone, iPad, Android, and Blackberry—make it a great backup option.

Google Docs

A Splash of Documents, Contacts, Calendars, and Mail
In addition to 5 gigabytes of shared backup, iCloud also vaporizes your documents (Documents in the Cloud), contacts (Contacts), calendars (Calendar), and mail (Mail). This is great if you rely on Apple products—iWork, Address Book, iCal, and Mail—but less useful if you rely upon third party solutions (though Windows users do catch a break with Outlook support).

Certainly, you can backup all this data manually using the aforementioned backup services; however, if you want to use your documents, mail, contacts, and calendars, Google has you covered: Google Docs, Google Gmail, Google Contacts, and Google Calendar. As with just about everything from Google, these services are popular, free, and easily accessible. Google Docs is an easy choice: It secured our Editors’ Choice designation for its simple editing, collaboration, and tight integration with other Google function. When it comes to email, Google Gmail may not match the uber-customizable Editors’ Choice winner Windows Live Hotmail, but thanks to its interoperability with Google’s other services—Docs, Contacts, and Calendars—it makes the most sense as a centralized iCloud replacement.

On the other hand, for customers willing to pay for a deeper feature set and guaranteed reliability (namely 99.9% uptime), Microsoft has also entered the cloud, with its Office 365: $6 per user per month buys you access to the Office web apps (Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, and Microsoft OneNote), Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, and Lync Online.


A Dash of Photo Stream
iCloud features Photo Stream, a rolling collection of your last 1,000 photos (and new photos for 30 days) automatically distributed across your devices—iPhones, iPads, and Macs. It’s a great idea because it addresses a reality: Consumers are using smartphones as cameras and they need a way to unfetter those photos because manually syncing or sharing photos just isn’t cutting it anymore.

For both Android and iPhone customers, SugarSync is the obvious alternative because of AutoSync Photos. The new photo-centric feature automatically backs up your mobile photos so that you can access them across all of your devices. It already existed for files (AutoSync Files), and SugarSync simply extended the coverage to photos. In fact, if you’re using SugarSync for photo streaming alone, this may be a better solution than Photo Stream, because unlike Photo Stream, which puts an expiration date on your pics, SugarSync lets you draw from a fixed 5 gigabytes of online storage (which you can of course upgrade).

Amazon Cloud Drive

Two Parts iTunes
One component that’s already available is iTunes. Anything you’ve purchased on iTunes is available in your iTunes purchased tab to be downloaded on your devices. There will also be the option to extend the cloud with iTunes Match, a $25 per year service that will pair all of your songs—no matter how they got into iTunes—with their DRM-free, 256kbps twins in Apple's 18 million-song vault in the sky. An unmatchable deal, right? Think again.

Amazon’s Cloud Drive and Cloud Player compete almost directly with Apple’s service. Amazon gives you free online storage of any music you purchase through the Amazon Music Store and up to 5 gigabytes of storage for anything else you dream up. Amazon Cloud Drive is the repository; Amazon Cloud Player is the vehicle for uploading or streaming music (though you can manually upload). When you purchase a song or album from Amazon, you have the option to vaporize it to your cloud drive, sparing you the upload you do for personal music or files. Currently, Amazon is running a deal that rivals iTunes Match: For $20 per year you get unlimited personal music uploads plus 20 gigabytes of undefined storage—movies, photos, documents, whatever you please. The only tradeoff is that instead of matching your tunes with a vault in the sky, Amazon requires you upload tracks.

Amazon Cloud Player device support is limited to Android for the time being, so for now, iOS enthusiasts will have to wait for iCloud or weigh media-savvy alternatives such as SugarSync or MiMedia.

Another option is Google Music, currently in beta. If you can get access to the service, Google Music lets you upload up to 20,000 of your songs (with a max of 250 megabytes per song) for free. Its accompanying Music Manager app automatically finds and uploads all tunes on your computer, though you don't get to pick and choose which evaporate. The bigger problem is that, unlike iTunes or Amazon Cloud Player, there's no integrated music store for online purchases. Google Music also offers an Android app that lets you play and download, but not upload, music.

Your Cloud, Your Terms
While Apple’s iCloud looks to be a huge improvement upon MobileMe, there are plenty of existing services for all users—Apple and Windows, iPhone and Android—that can be mixed together to create the same kind of cloud-based coverage. For backup, there are a host of free online repositories from which to choose, many of which include file streaming and robust mobile support. Google (as well as Microsoft, for a cost) offers powerful document hosting, while SugarSync delivers a platform-agnostic answer to photo streaming. And even iTunes in the Cloud and iTunes Match can be replicated—and more—with Amazon’s Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. It takes a thirst, and a bit of imagination, but the ingredients are within reach. Of course, they won’t be integrated behind one no-doubt beautiful interface, but they’re here now, and, for the most part, they’re free for the taking.