Virtualise your life

by Marcus Loane

13th July 2011


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First I would like to say that this article will look ridiculously dated in just a year or two.

Personal technology is rapidly changing and this is impacting how we can live our lives. There has been a proliferation of gadgets such as netbooks, computing tablets, satellite navigation systems, portable music players and ever smarter phones. These gadgets are taking over from the personal desktop/laptop computer for many tasks. Why go to a desktop computer to read web sites or email when you can do it on a touchscreen tablet from the comfort of your sofa? Touchscreen tablets such as the iPad run completely silently. They switch on in a fraction of a second and also generate much less heat. This instant-on, ready accessibility and quiet operation, makes them attractive for a quick search which otherwise would not be done.

Some phones can also be used to email and browse the web. Their size makes prolonged reading of web sites uncomfortable but can be useful for quickly looking up information on the move such as opening hours and locations of shops and other businesses. Tablets have many uses and can be used to store ebooks and work well as a photo album. My tablet has over 11,000 photos stored on it as well as all our home videos which can be played on the tablet and beamed wirelessly to the TV. My portable music player has my entire music collection and also my wife's stored on it. We use the iPod in a portable speaker dock and also plug it into a separates amplifier and speaker system for the best sound quality. It is possible now to choose and play music from your own collection stored on your PC, controlled by your smartphone and output on a hifi. There are different ways of doing this but I am using a setup of iTunes running on a windows PC with iTunes Home Sharing turned on, a TV/hifi hooked up to the Apple TV box and controlling it using an ipad or iphone.

I have reached a point now where my desktop computer is mostly used for being creative - editing photos or adding to my website. I also use it to make backups. Web browsing, e-mail, viewing photos and watching home videos are done on the tablet or TV.

All this means you can choose the device which best suits the task. This will depend on factors such as screen size, input methods and portability and connectivity. It does make me think about where I should be storing my information. Should I have one central version of all my photos, videos, emails, contact list, documents, spreadsheets and diary information? Without some planning it can start to get messy with multiple copies of these across different devices and they may not all be synchronised. However there are solutions. You may have heard of "using the cloud". This means storing your information and documents out on the internet (in a secured private space if needed) and then they can be accessed from any of your devices or from anywhere such as a work computer or an internet cafe in Mongolia.

I am starting to use the cloud more now. Anyone who has used a web email service will understand the concept. They can access their old emails from any internet connected device or computer by using their username and password. Two examples of the numerous free web email services are Yahoo and Hotmail. Yahoo will also store your contact and diary information which can be accessed from any internet connected computer and also from some smart phones. The best phones will store the logon details for these so that you do not have to type them in each time so checking your calendar or email is simple jab of the finger once or twice.

I have also discovered Dropbox which is a service (free for 2Gb storage) that allows you to store your word documents, spreadsheets and other files on the internet and then access them from any computer or iPad (or most tablets) or iPhone or Android/Blackberry phone. It automatically synchronises with copies of them on your desktop computer. This is incredibly convenient - it means I can pull up my documents on any internet connected computer or my iPad or iPhone, make changes to the document and save them back. Use the excellent DocumentsToGo application on iPad for working with word and excel files. Without this I would have been messing around with USB memory sticks or emailing copies back and forth. It is much easier to keep track when there is only one version (effectively) of each document.

The cloud may be the future. Your photos, videos, emails, contact list, documents, spreadsheets, diary information etc can be stored in a secure, password protected place on the internet where they can be accessed from multiple devices from anywhere in the world where there is internet/mobile connectivity available. This is already a reality and practical for many purposes both personal and work related. Many of the services are free in some form with paid-for services offering extra storage space. Another alternative is to have your own internet connected storage device in your home which you can access from around the world. Then you are responsible for it, for backing it up and worrying about the impact of a house fire or burglary on your precious memories or important work documents. I think you should have your own backup of anything you really value such as photos.

In the UK where I live it is still not practical to use the cloud for very large photo, video and music collections, in my opinion. Our internet connections are not ubiquitous or fast enough to make this a pleasant experience. However for other documents, emails, to do lists, diaries and schedules it is very practical indeed. Also I would always advise to have your own backups of anything you value as you do not know if these companies are going to be around forever.

An example setup for using the cloud is as follows:

·       E-mail – use Yahoo (free)

·       Calendar/diary – use Yahoo (free)

·       Contacts address/phone book – use Yahoo (free)

·       To do and other notes – Simplenote (free)

·       Documents (words, spreadsheets, anything) – Dropbox (free up to a limit)

·       eBooks – Amazon Kindle, Apple iCloud

·       Music, photos, videos – main store on your desktop computer for now.

Music, photos and videos could perhaps have copies on music players, tablets and set top boxes. There are also ways to wirelessly access these on your desktop computer from your TV for example. This is an area that is changing and companies such as Apple and Amazon are offering to store our music for us.

I would like to expand a little on Dropbox which is really rather clever. It is more than a document store on the web. What makes it so much better is that it synchronises copies of documents with your phone, tablet and other computers. You can for example install a Dropbox program on your desktop computer and tell it to copy all your desktop Documents’ contents up to Dropbox. Then you can get your phone/tablet or other computers to access this over the internet. However an internet connection is not even needed all the time as local copies are stored on each device. You can work on a document on your tablet/phone and save it and then as soon as that device has a connection again Dropbox will automatically copy the changes up to Dropbox and then back down to all the other devices (as soon as they have an internet connection). It all works automatically without having to think about it. Apple is building a similar system with their iCloud. With these changes in technology and working patterns, more of what we own is becoming non-physical and even the storage devices which store them are no longer owned by us. More of our belongings are becoming virtualised. There is a kind of freedom with this and you can potentially travel a lot lighter. You can bring all your “stuff” on holiday which might include 20 ebooks, travel documents, maps, music etc. which is all electronic and all stored or accessed from one small device such as a smartphone. If you lose your phone, it doesn’t matter (you have protected it with a PIN code of course) because all your “stuff” is also stored in the cloud. You can get at it from an internet cafe or from a new phone.

The way we interact with our data is also changing with touch screens and gesture interfaces becoming more common. In the next decade or two I think we will have holographic 3d displays of our files and information hovering in front of us which we can manipulate by moving our hands around as if handling real objects. This is in the laboratory at the moment. It is just a matter of when or if it becomes commercially viable.

Exciting times are ahead.

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