Online storage: The next generation

Last year, I thought that might change. Free virtual drive services such as I-drive (www.i-drive.com) and Xdrive (www.xdrive.com) had hit the scene. Signing up for one of them netted you a Web-based, password-protected "drive" with 20 or more megabytes of space, accessible from any Internet-connected PC. Unfortunately, these services' initial incarnations were so slow and ungainly that I let my accounts languish for months.

Recently, though, the early contenders have received sweeping makeovers, and new rivals continue to pop up. It seemed time to give virtual drive services a second chance. So I revisited I-drive and Xdrive to see what was new, and signed up for accounts at two relative latecomers, My Docs Online (www.mydocsonline.com) and Driveway (www.driveway.com).

Have virtual drives changed for the better? Absolutely. The best are now easier to use, more powerful, and generally handier for moving documents between your work and home PCs and for zapping files to distant friends and colleagues. Driveway's my current favourite, mostly because of its straightforward look and feel. Still, even the new, improved world of online storage isn't free of technical snafus and half-baked features.

Foraging for Storage

With virtual drives, the word virtual might as well be a code name for slow and small. Performance, of course, hinges on the speed of your Net connection -- a cable modem or DSL line provides maximum oomph. Nor will capacity rival that of your hard disk: The services offer anywhere from 20MB (My Docs Online) to 50MB (I-drive) for your files. If you need more room, though, you can probably get it. Every service except I-drive lets you increase your quota to at least 100MB, either by paying a monthly fee or as a reward for "good deeds" such as getting buddies to register.

Though Web browsers do lots of things well, heavy-duty file management still isn't one of them. The browser-based interfaces offered by these services are okay for moving a file or two at a time, but they're underpowered for wrangling droves of documents or whole directories. That's why all the services offer some kind of desktop integration that makes your virtual drive act more like a real one.

Xdrive's integration goes the furthest: After you download and install the service's 1.3MB desktop utility, your Xdrive space shows up as a drive in Windows. File management becomes a snap with Windows Explorer, and you can even reach your Xdrive from any Open or Save dialog box in any Windows application. But while this utility is slick and effective, it's incompatible with Windows 2000, my operating system of choice. A Win 2000 version is in the works, but it isn't due for several months.

For the time being, I'll make do with Web Folders, which is a similar feature offered by Driveway, I-drive, and My Docs Online. Web Folders aren't for Microsoft-phobes, however: They work only if you have Internet Explorer 5.0 or above installed on your PC. And even then, your virtual drive shows up only within

My Computer, Windows Explorer, and Microsoft Office 2000.

Features, features

The first wave of virtual drives suffered from a severe case of clone-itis: Features scarcely differed from service to service. With the new generation, that has changed. For example, every service now has a different approach to file sharing.

I-drive works especially well if you want to disperse files to the Web at large. However, if you want to grant password-protected access to a few people, Driveway's implementation is the best of the bunch. (When our office's wide area network was misbehaving recently, I used it to deposit files where a co-worker across the country could get to them.)

Both Driveway and I-drive double as Web scrapbooks-you can snag any Web page on the fly and store it for future reference. I-Drive also has Playlists and Photo Albums, which let you organise and enjoy MP3 music clips and photos. Granted, these features are fairly spartan right now. But they point the way toward a future in which virtual drives are as much activity centres as way stations for files in transit.

Then there's My Docs Online's wireless phone features, which let you use a Web-enabled phone to send files from your virtual drive to any e-mail address. Why most people would want that capability is unclear, though. (To be fair, quandaries of this sort are all too typical with Web services that dabble in wireless access.) And at least with my phone and wireless service, the process of establishing an Internet connection of any sort is so byzantine and flaky, it took me 15 minutes to log in and send a single file.

On the Fritz

If you ask me, the one overarching feature every virtual drive service should be shooting for is rock-solid reliability. Judging from my experiences, there is substantial room for improvement. One fine day, for example, I found myself locked out of my I-drive account. Had I forgotten my account name or password? Nope. The drive remained incommunicado a day later, so I e-mailed I-drive's tech support department. The automated response I received referred vaguely to "service performance issues" and asked me to try again. So I did-repeatedly-and another day elapsed before I could get in. Even then, the photo album refused at times to display thumbnail images. (I-drive blames these glitches on unexpectedly heavy demand for the service.)

During another weekend, Xdrive suddenly became almost impenetrably sluggish: It took me a minute and a half to log in to my account, and once I was in, icons moseyed onto the screen one by one, as if the computer were running in slow motion. Not until Monday morning did the service behave like its old, relatively peppy self again.

At least I didn't have any of my vital files socked away at Internet FileZone. A predecessor of Driveway, the service was shut down recently, forcing its customers to rescue their files and deposit them elsewhere. And you can bet that FileZone won't be the last virtual drive service to perish. To paraphrase what Pogo said about life itself-and despite what Web start-ups may tell you-most free Internet services ain't nohow permanent.

The lesson here: Technical hiccups and other nasty surprises are an ugly fact of life on the Web. So treat virtual drives accordingly. Don't store your only copy of an irreplaceable (or even semi-important) file in one; and always have an alternative means of moving files on hand for emergencies. My strategy? Driveway hasn't failed me yet, but I'm keeping a stash of blank floppies tucked away just in case. You can't be too careful.

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Harry McCracken

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