This is the third article on Cloud Computing. Part I discussed programs that are accessed and used via the Internet. These programs are rented from Application-Service-Providers (ASP) and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) providers, and have the benefit that the user never needs to install or upgrade the programs. Their downside is that an active Internet connection is generally always needed to use the programs. Part II covered use of the Internet to provide electronic file backup and restore services. These services are called offsite storage and have the benefit that your electronic files are safe from harm or theft in your office. Their downside is that the files may be subject to compromise both by harm or theft at the offsite location.
Part III, provided here, discusses use of the Internet for sharing documents and for creating and editing documents. This article includes minor technical discussions so that readers may understand the legal and privacy implications for using various file sharing and document creation services.
Online File Sharing
File sharing works primarily two ways, server-client and peer-to-peer. As with ASP and SaaS, server-client means a central computer (the server) holds files and controls access by another computer (the client). Peer-to-peer means two computers are sharing information with each other without regard to either computer being between other computers.
Server-client file sharing predates the Internet through newsgroups (1980), which were also called usenets, or bulletin boards. Each server had a telephone number through which people could connect a computer. The Internet allowed multiple servers and multiple users to connect via telephone connections, with cable and DSL connections later succeeding telephone service. Readers may recognize that web sites, forums, and social media are current examples of server-client file sharing.
Peer-to-peer file sharing means that people may share files without using a intermediary server. Early peer-to-peer file sharing required users to install a common program, such as Napster and Grokster, so a user could tell other users what files were available for sharing, and at least one server to facilitate the exchange of file lists. As many users unfortunately chose to share copyright protected files, the server owners were liable for contributory copyright infringement.
Yahoo took a different tactic and introduced Yahoo Groups to allow people to upload pictures and other files for sharing. Yahoo Groups isn't quite a client-server operation because you can use any web browser and it isn't peer-to-peer because the files are on a Yahoo server. In addition, the users (called "organizers") who create the group have the ability to make the files public or private to select people. Yahoo Groups is free, but there are three important issues. First, the files on Yahoo Groups are not encrypted (unless the uploaded file is encrypted) so anyone with access can read a file. Second, files are publicly available unless access is correctly set to the authorized people. Lastly, as the files are on a Yahoo server, you are trusting Yahoo with oversight that the information will not be compromised.
Like Yahoo Groups, Google's file sharing services are free at a basic level and use a web browser for file operations. Google's Picassa allows for photo uploading and editing. Google docs allows for the ability to have both document sharing and real-time editing of letters and spreadsheets. Another Google difference is being able to control access link-sharing, meaning anyone with the URL can access the document. As with Yahoo Groups, the files on Google docs are not independently encrypted so you must properly set controlled access, and trust that Google employees will not snoop. Server-client services are now generally fee-based, which helps pay for the software, the sharing services, and for file storage.
Other companies allow you to store files in a designated folder on your computer, and the company then copies the files to the computers of people you designate, and its servers. The company then updates the files on all computers with automatic peer-to-peer updates. Examples of these companies include Dropbox, Box.net, FilesAnywhere, CloudMe, CrashPlan, Egnyte, iCloud, Mozy, SpiderOak, SugarSync, TitanFile, Ubuntu One, Windows Live SkyDrive, Wuala and ZumoDrive. Most of these companies have a tiered free/ fee service plan for keeping the files current regardless of whether you or another users make changes. Most companies also have applications for Android, BlackBerry, iPad or iPhone so you can keep your files current across all your devices.
There are major concerns with these services. First, the folder of your computer may be a 'public' folder that provides for public access to anyone who has the link (this is like Picassa and Google docs), so you must be careful to place sensitive files in the correct folder. Second, if you lose a mobile device, you must remotely delete the folder on the device, or the files, or remotely erase the device. Third, as with any offsite file storage scheme, you trust the integrity and confidentiality of your electronic files to a third party. As previously mentioned, personal encryption is the only way to have complete assurance of confidentiality. Lastly, these companies sometimes go out of business, so you should have a separate backup of every file you store online.
Cloud-Based Office Suites
Cloud-Based Office Suites are basically online document creation providers. Depending on the provider, you open your browser to the provider's website, login, use the provided features to create and format a document, and set permissions of who can set and edit the file. The market is still in flux, but the primary players in the field are Google Apps, Zoho, and Microsoft Office 365 (which replaces Office Live).
Google packages it's Apps' service as a combined email, document, and calendar/ ToDo service with tiered free/ fee plans. You register for a google email (gmail) address, such as firstname.lastname@example.org, and for free, you get 7 GB of storage for email and documents. There is a slight perk that free file storage slowly increases at 128 MB per day. For a nominal $50 per year, the storage is bumped up to 25 GB per year. As an online office suite, Google Apps is austere. You get the basic font formats, plus nine paragraph formats, most of which apply to titles and headings. The basic file, edit and insert toolbars, functions and symbols are available, as is an equation toolbar. You also have the ability to share documents by assigning read or write privileges to individuals (collaborators) through weblinks, or to the public, or to publish the file on a webpage. Google services are also available for Droid and Blackberry Smartphones. Google also has a Groups (discussions) feature, and is getting into the online meeting business (openmeetings) though at this time I would classify the openmeetings service as being in beta testing stage.
Zoho (which has a corporate office in Pleasanton) touts itself as an online provider of 22 collaboration services. Some are the same services as Google (including a Zoho.com email address), and in fact, Zoho allows you both to register using your Google login, and "lets you seamlessly manage members of your private community from Google, attach files from Google Docs and much more, from within Zoho apps." Zoho, however, surpasses Google as a business service provider by providing an accounting application, a CRM (customer resource management) application, HR services, discussion groups, project management, online meetings and other applications. Like other online providers, Zoho is a free/ tiered fee service provider. All Zoho services have a free minimum level with 1 GB of storage (total). Each service also has an enhanced paid service, such as $3 per month per additional 5GB of storage. The free HR service tracks up to 10 employees, with more than 10 employees costing $49 per month, The free online meeting service is one host-one participant-one hour per meeting, while one year of one host - five participant unlimited meetings is $115. This is much less than gotomeeting, which is $49 per month, though gotomeeting allows for more attendees. The advantage and yet drawback to Zoho is its pricing structure. You can buy only the services you want, but to get bulk pricing, you'll have to call Zoho and talk to a customer service representative (unless you work in the 4900 Hopyard Road building).
After years of sticking to packaged software, Microsoft finally relented in 2011 to the 21st Century and introduced Microsoft Office 365 as its cloud-based application suite. The advantages of Office 365 are that if you are used to Office 2007 or Office 2010, you'll likely be comfortable with the ribbon features of Office 365, it has more office suite features than other online applications, and the pricing isn't bad. Office 365 is just $6 per month per user for the usual office suite applications with 25 GB of storage. Businesses with corporate email and IT functions might consider the enterprise-level packages which have file sharing and online meetings, though the lower level enterprise package bizarrely does not allow office suite file editing.
Overall, moving some work to the "cloud" is beneficial for mobile access, sharing, and storage. Google docs allows me to type notes on my smartphone during meetings, then to upload the file for safe storage, share the file, and make changes later, regardless of whether I'm at my desk or elsewhere. A free Zoho account allows for in-office and remote business administration work.
Heavy Use Disruption
If there will be one significant problem to Cloud Computing, it will be resistance from Internet Service Providers regarding the amount of data (files and programs) sent through their service lines. For example, Comcast instituted in 2010 a zero-tolerance rule for heavy Internet users, which Comcast saw at the time primarily as people illegally downloading movies. Under the zero-tolerance rule, any user exceeding 250GB of broadband use in a calendar month, which means both downloads (office suite use and movies) and uploads (storage) gets cut-off - with no notice or appeal. At the time of putting the rule in place, 250GB of use was both rare and generally due to illegal downloads. Now, however, the combinations of online storage uploads, online Office Suite downloads and legal movie (Netflix, etc.) downloads will and has raised monthly usage to a significant fraction of the 250GB limit. The rule, however, is blind to legal use of the Internet, and these services may cause a Comcast user to permanently lose service without notice. Consequently, Comcast users should monitor their use to prevent disruption, or upgrade to a business plan.
Online File Sharing and Cloud-Based Office Suites provide ease and assurance for backup storage, sharing and collaboration, automatic updates, and remote access to improve personal and business operations for both office and mobile situations. These are tempered by concerns for confidentiality and generally minor, but potentially significant uncertainties. In the balance of relieving apprehension and uncertainty in office administration, and adding complications, Online File Sharing and Cloud-Based Office Suites have significant benefits for the legal office.
Copyright ©2011 Gerald R. Prettyman. Gerald R. Prettyman is an Intellectual Property and Patent Attorney serving entrepreneurs, start-ups, and established businesses seeking to protect and profit from their ideas. Please visit http://GotABrightIdea.com.