We Make the Move to the Clouds -- How to Live Entirely on Internet Computing

Alex Castle

Cloud computing has become quite the buzzword over the last year or so. It seems like every major company wants a piece of the “cloud,” from IBM to AMD to Microsoft . Definitions for the phrase vary, but the most common aspect of any cloud computing service is the notion that you can use the internet to run applications on remote computers, making you less dependent on any one physical machine.

And while the idea of software as a service is hardly new, the number of online “cloud” apps has reached a sort of critical mass lately, making it possible to do the vast majority of your computing online. In this article we’ll show you some of our favorite cloud applications, and explain how they can help make the move to cloud city.

Office Apps

One of the first applications of cloud computing to make a significant impact on the mainstream was the advent of online office software like Google Docs , which allows you to edit and save your documents on a remote server, accessible from any computer. Although Google’s online office apps are the best known, and very solid in their own right, we recommend you give the suite at zoho.com a chance. Read on to find out why.

Zoho

If you’ve ever used Google apps it’s very easy to try out Zoho, for two reasons. First, the interface will be very familiar to any users of Google’s offering, making for a tiny learning curve. Second, you can actually log into Zoho with your Google account, so you won’t even have to register.


So why use Zoho instead of Google Apps? Well, for one, you get pretty much all of the same functionality. Here are some screenshots to illustrate the functionality of the word processor and spreadsheet apps in Zoho. If you've ever used Google Maps, you should recognize the interface as very similar.




And in addition to doing all the Google Docs stuff, Zoho has some additional features. To name a few, Zoho can automatically post to blogs, create and host wikis, and sort documents with an intuitive tagging system, rather than a simple folder hierarchy. All that aside, there’s one feature that really makes us like Zoho better than Google for document management: The Zoho Plug-in for Microsoft office.

With this plug-in, you can create and edit your documents and spreadsheets with the Microsoft Office applications you’ve gotten used to, and then hit the Zoho button to automatically save it to the cloud. The plug-in also makes it easy to download and edit files from the Zoho servers, then upload your edits. In essence, this plug-in removes what we consider to be the greatest hurdle to the widespread adoption of online office services: the fact that the online client is simply never quite as powerful as a system-based client like Microsoft Word. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it, too?



Getting set up with the Zoho plug-in is easy; all you have to do is to download the plugin here , then run it. It’ll automatically install the add-in, and all you have to do is log into your account next time you start up Word. Once the plug-in is installed, there’ll be a new panel in the “Add-Ins” section, which will give you the option to open from or save to the Zoho servers. It’s that simple. It’s so simple, in fact, that it’s almost baffling that Google Docs hasn’t released a similar functionality yet. Nonetheless, the convenience of this feature alone, in addition to the slightly larger featureset of Zoho means that it gets our recommendation.

Music

Sure, there are plenty of services like last.fm or Pandora that let you listen to music online, but it’s really not quite the same as listening to your own personal library of music. If only there was some way to store our music files online, and listen to them anywhere…

Oh, right! There is. In fact there are a couple of services which allow you to do exactly this. Both Lala and MP3tunes.com fit the bill, and while they’re both excellent services, we’re inclined to recommend Lala, for a couple of reasons. Read on to find out more about Lala’s features, and about why we think it’s the superior offering.


Cloud City image copyright Lucasfilm

Uploading

Synching your collection with Lala involves the use of the Lala Music Mover, a small client which allows you to automatically sync certain folders on your system with Lala. This means that it will attempt to upload any new MP3s it finds in that folder to Lala, and it will automatically download any music you buy through Lala to that folder.



Upload speed is sort of a mixed bag with Lala. The Music Mover starts by scanning all the files you wish to upload. If it can match the file to one of the 6 millions songs in its catalogue, then no actual uploading takes place; it simply enables you to stream that particular song at any time. So, assuming most of your songs are in their catalogue, which includes the vast majority of reasonably-known acts, uploading is an incredibly fast process.

On the other hand, if Lala can’t match your files to a song in their catalogue, it uploads it the old fashion way. The upload speed for this “Brute Force” uploading left us a little underwhelmed. If you’re planning on uploading a lot of music this way, be prepared to leave it on overnight, at the least.

Playback

Lala’s music player is, to put it lightly, iTunes-esque. To put it less lightly, it’s a big giant iTunes ripoff. But that’s ok, because iTunes works pretty well (despite what Gordon, in his undying rage would have you think) and Lala’s browser-based player manages to capture most of that useability.



It’s got all the standard features like playlists, and can sort by genre, artist, or album. Sound quality is good, as far as streaming audio goes, and we very rarely experienced any stuttering or long buffering times.

Music Store

If you like your music listening legit, you’re covered with Lala, which allows you two ways to get music legally. First, you can pay 10 cents per track to add the song to your online library, allowing you to stream it as much as you like, without actually owning the track. This is obviously attractive for its bargain-basement pricing, although if Lala were to ever go out of business (as online music services are wont to do) you’d be left high and dry. You can also pay 79 cents per song to actually buy any of Lala’s licensed music, allowing you to stream it and download it to your hard drive. This is still a better deal than the iTunes store, and as we mentioned before, the selection is good.



Image Storage

There are about a thousand different services which will host your photos on the web, but there’s really only two that are currently in contention for first place: Flickr and Picasa . Flickr, which is owned by Yahoo, has become a household name (at least among the more technologically inclined households) for its ease of use and robust organizational and social-networking features. Google’s Picasa, on the other hand, is focused on synchronization between the excellent machine-side viewer/organizer and the Picasa online service. Both are excellent offerings, but in the context of this article we’ve got to give our recommendation to the service with the best online component: Flickr.



Flickr

If you’re even remotely familiar with the internet, you’ve probably already heard of Flickr. It’s a photo storage service and social network that’s nearly ubiquitous among the net-savvy. What you might not know about, however, is the impressive depth of features it provides for organizing and sharing photos. We’ll highlight some of these features now, to better explain why we ranked Flickr as the best of its cohort.

Organization

Any good photo manager (online or off) needs first and foremost to do an excellent job of organizing your pictures. Photos should be able to be grouped into flexible categories, and it should be easy to find exactly the pictures you’re looking for, quickly. On all of these counts, Flickr succeeds brilliantly.

Flickr organizes photos with sets, collections and tags. Sets are your standard albums—groups of pictures. Collections are sets of sets, allowing you to group albums by theme or by year. Tags, as usual, allow you to assign descriptors to images, which you can later search or sort by.


Keep reading to find out what else we like about Flickr!

Uploading

There are a number of options for uploading images to Flickr. The most basic is the web interface, which allows you to upload and tag multiple photos with reasonable speed, and it can be used from any PC without any install. However, when you’ve got a lot of photos to upload at once (when you first migrate your collection to Flickr, for instance) the web interface is a little too slow.


Fortunately, there is also a lightweight client you can download, called the “Flickr Uploadr” which greatly speeds up the uploading process. Flickr bills the programs as a beings suitable for “offline photo management,” but don’t be fooled; you’re not going to get the same sort of robust organizational functionality as you would get with Picasa. Rather, the program provides you with the ability to classify photos with tag and collection data, which transfers over to Flickr when you upload the photos.



Lastly, you can upload to Flickr through email. All you have to do is add the picture as an attachment to an email to the address that you see if you go to this page while logged into your Flickr account. The subject line will automatically be used as the title, and the body will be used as the description. You can include tags by adding the word “tags:” to either the subject or body of the message, followed by a list of space-delineated tags. This function is especially handy for quickly uploading images from email-enabled mobile devices like cameraphones.

There are also a wide variety of programs (many of which have been compiled here ) which use the Flickr API to expand on Flickr’s functionality. As an example, one program called Flickr Foldr Monitr will keep an eye on a folder on your system and automatically upload any picture dropped in that folder to Flickr.

Social Networking

Social Networking is a feature that may or may not be a plus, depending on your personal feelings. If you do like to be a part of an online community, then Flickr’s definitely got you covered, providing all of the standard Web 2.0 features, including friends, groups and blogs.



And if you don’t like social networks, then you don’t have to have anything to do with the Flickr community. You can just set your global privacy setting to “Me Only” and use the service as nothing more than online storage.

Really, the only problem with Flickr is that to get the most out of it, you’ll need to pay 25 bucks a year. Still, in our opinion if you like to take and share pictures, it’s absolutely worth the price.

Photo Editing

Photo manipulation is one of the newest services on the Cloud, with reasonable browser-based options only becoming available in the last year or so. Still, in that time a whole plethora of services have become available. Which service should you use for your online picture editing needs? That depends on what exactly you’re trying to do to your photo.

If you’re looking to simply touch up an image, we recommend FotoFlexer . Why? Because it does all basic edits like adjusting contrast and brightness, cropping and resizing, and it does them with an editor that’s quick, clean and intuitive (and all for free, unlike competitor Picnik ). It’s got a number of automated retouch options, like red-eye and blemish removal, which are great for when you want to spruce up a picture quickly and you don’t need professional-quality results.


Additionally, FotoFlexer makes it very simple to upload images to work on, by integrating directly with most major online photo hosts, like Flickr, Picasa, and Facebook. This allows you to load pictures directly from your albums on those sites, and save back to them when you’re done. You can also upload pictures off of your hard drive, or specify the URL of an image on the web.



However, if you’re looking to do any sort of advanced image manipulation, FotoFlexer probably won’t be enough for you. Though it has limited layer support, it doesn’t give you the tools needed to edit with much precision, meaning you won’t be able to create worth1000 style results. There is an option for power-users online, however, called Splashup .



Splashup is a browser-based editor that does an admirable job of recreating the experience of using Photoshop. The interface is faithfully recreated, and most of the important tools are present, including full support for layers. Generally, veteran ‘shoppers should be able to do most anything they want in Splashup, though they may be slowed down by the lack of hotkeys or a context menu.



Splashup features the same service integration and upload options as FotoFlexer, making uploading a breeze. The only reason we don’t recommend Splashup unconditionally is that it’s a bit slower than FotoFlexer, and much less intuitive.

Read on to find out what we think are the best browser based games available today. Trust us, you don't want to miss these!

Gaming

What comes to mind when you think of browser-based gaming? Is it the legion of flash-based timewasters you might find at a site like Kongregate ? Is it the slow-like-molasses strategy/empire management games like Utopia ? What about the turn-based, lightweight RPGs like Kingdom of Loathing ? Well, we’re here to tell you that there’s more to browser games than just that.



Now, we’re not going to claim that you can play Crysis or Left 4 Dead on the cloud, but there are plenty of fun, 3D games available for free, ready to play on any computer with a browser and a CPU from the last half-decade. These games, which include shooters, RPGS, and other genres, are more polished than you likely think, and are definitely worth checking out.



Rather than trying to recommend a single, best game, we’ll list off some of our favorites from each genre.

Note : Nearly all of these games require some sort of browser plug in to play.

Shooters

Fallen Empires: Legions

You may have heard that some ex-Dynamix members are creating a “spiritual successor” to Starsiege: Tribes, played in a browser. You also might have assumed that the game would suck, given the unproven nature of browser-imbedded 3d action games, but you definitely owe it to yourself to try Fallen Empires: Legions out. The graphics are surprisingly good, and the action is as fast and high-flying as befits a game with the Tribes lineage. It’s still in (open) beta right now, so some things like weapon selection are limited, but the developers are working extensively with the community, and the game’s shaping up to be a lot of fun.



It’s also worth mentioning that although Fallen Empires is the flagship game of the Instant Action service, it’s far from its only offering. There are 8 other games, including an arcadey flight combat sim, a MechWarrior clone, a simple space RTS and others; all of which are better-executed games than you would probably expect to find running in a browser.



Quake Live


Continuing the trend of old games given new life in the browser, Quake Live is basically a straight port of Quake III. It’s still in beta, meaning that you can’t play it right this instant, but we can say from experience that the game is coming along very nicely, and is worth keeping an eye on.

RPGs

RuneScape

If you’ve been on the net much, you’ve probably heard of Runescape . And yeah, it still has something of a bad reputation for having a lousy community and ugly graphics. But there’s also a little tiny glimmer of real gameplay tucked away in there, somewhere. Basically, if you want a full-featured 3D MMO to waste your time on without having to download a client, Runescape’s the only way to go.



Sherwood

Remember how we just said that RuneScape is the only full-featured browser MMORPG? Sherwood is an excellent example of what we would call an under-featured browser MMORPG. The only reason we bother to include it on this list is that the engine is actually quite nice; it manages to pump out much better framerates than RuneScape does, and the graphics are about 3 generations ahead of its competitor. So it’s probably not worth more than an hour or two of time-killing, if that, but the game is at least a proof-of-concept for browser-based MMORPGs with acceptable graphics.

Others

Blurst

Blurst is a website which hosts several awesome and surreal games from Flashbang, the studio which created (among other things) the totally rad Peggle Nights. But that’s not a browser game, and is therefore neither here nor there. What is both here and there is Flashbang’s stable of Browser-based 3D games, including Off-Road Velociraptor Safari, Minotaur China Shop, and Jetpack Brontosaurus. Seriously, even if you think the games sound dumb, give them a try; you’ll thank us later.

Want to know what website will let you do all your instant messaging without downloading a thing? Keep reading.

Instant Messaging

For a lot of people, instant messaging is a vital link to their social sphere. So what do you do if you’re away from home and need to chat? You could quickly download a program like Pidgin , or even carry it with you at all times , but there’s an even easier option: Meebo .



Meebo is a web client which allows you to log into all your IM accounts from anywhere. It supports all the popular services, including AOL, MSN, ICQ and others. You can use it without any signup, by simply entering your username and password for a service into the login page, or you can create an account, which allows you to automatically sign in to all the services you use at once.



When you log into a service using Meebo, you’re shown a page with simulated buddy list. When you send or receive messages, new windows spawn in the same browser tab. Each of the simulated windows has a button to pop them out into a real window (although you may have to tell your popup blocker to let Meebo do this) and the whole client feels very slick and very responsive. Pretty much every service you would find in the normal IM client, including audio and video chatting is available in Meebo. Also, you can set up public or private chat rooms to talk with other Meebo users.



The only real downside of using a client like Meebo is that it can’t pop a window up or flash the taskbar when you get a message, meaning you might miss them if you’re busy. It can play a noise, though, which helps quite a bit. If you think you can live with that one shortcoming, give Meebo a try; it might just replace your old-fashioned IM client.

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