Friday, September 14, 2012

Files not going away in spite of the Cloud/Google service changes impinging on my use

One senses a competition heating up between Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and other services for document sharing like Scribd and Slideshare. For the first three, the behavioral problem that the services appear to be trying to solve is how to manage one's files when using multiple devices.  This is a personal computing issue and the key seems to be to use the cloud in conjunction with an application on each device that enables syncing of the file collection.  The old technique, tried but not true, of sending a copy of the file as an email attachment just doesn't cut it anymore.

I mentioned the other services, Scribd and Slideshare, because they suggest a different solution to the issue, at least a different solution for the class of files that you'd call documents.  That alternative is to convert the documents into Web readable form and view them (and edit them too) in a browser.  Google's approach seems somewhere in between the two or perhaps might better be thought of as the union of the two.  It had a further interesting aspect to it.  You could author directly in the Google environment.  As such it provided competition for Microsoft Office, and for free.  Previous efforts at competition with Microsoft in this arena - Star Office, Open Office - perhaps created some following among uber techies but were a failure at getting a mass following. 

The ability to use only a browser and yet have substantial functionality of this sort appealed to my sensibility.  Alas, Apple's approach with the iPhone doomed the browser only approach as something the crowd would embrace.  Google Drive, which too requires a dedicated app, is just one more lance into an already bloodied soldier returning home from a losing battle. 

In my own use, I have only partially approximated the Web only ideal.  In composing blog posts like this one I have moved to doing so in the Blogger text box rather than in Word or some alternative.   This move was precipitated when the Word publish to Blogger function stopped working.  But I've found since that I actually have a preference for doing it this way.  Since the html is comparatively clean, I can go from the Compose view to the HTML view and edit it, which I do for example when inserting a cutout from Kwout.  I believe now that the presence of a grammar checker hurts my proofreading, since it encourages laziness that getting rid of the green and blue squiggles is sufficient.  So I prefer not to have that functionality.  Further, on the formatting of the document, not using a Word processor makes you more sensitive to how the document will appear in a browser.  I typically don't use much formatting at all but when I do I'm thinking not of replicating a Word document but how the Web page will appear.

On the other hand, when I need a lot of formatting - such as when doing a document with a fair amount of math in it, then I still use Word and make a PDF from that.  And folks who know me are aware that I rely on Excel a lot.  I use Google Spreadsheet, but mainly in conjunction with Google Forms.  When I do my econ stuff in a spreadsheet, I need the real Excel and take advantage of functions there to make my graphs highly interactive.

So, if somebody like me with an inclination for the Web only approach nonetheless relies on the dedicated applications more than they care to admit, I suppose it is not surprising that the Box, Dropbox, etc. way of solving the problem seems to be winning now.  Nonetheless, in my heart I'm saddened that Google with Google Docs/Drive is following along rather than reaffirming Web only. 

* * * * *

I have multiple Google accounts.  The two I use most prominently are a personal account for such things as this blog and a prof.arvan account that I use in my econ teaching and now with communicating externally to a non U of I student audience about learning objects I've made --- this YouTube channel where the bulk of the videos are screen capture movies with voice over based on these Excel spreadsheets, and this fledgling experiment on conducting online office hours for this external audience.  Until now I've managed these accounts by using a different browser for each - Firefox for the personal account and Chrome for the prof.arvan account.  That has worked remarkably well.

I should add the following.  When I was working I had three computers that I composed on - my desktop machine at work, my laptop/tablet pc from work, and my desktop machine at home.  I'm now down to having one machine for composing, my home desktop machine.  If I had a second computer for composing, the thing I'm going to complain about would not be a problem.  I could manage it by using different machines.  I do have an iPad now, but it is not the right device for me as an author.  In a Web only world it might be, but otherwise not, especially with my use of Excel.  (And though there is a cloud version of it, when I tried that at home it was just too slow.)

Google Drive does not allow multiple personal accounts on one machine.  Apparently it does allow multiple accounts if they are in different domains.  For example, if you have a Google Apps account through your institution and a personal Gmail, then you can manage both accounts with the Google Drive app on a single computer.  Not being a real techie, I can't tell whether this inability to manage multiple personal accounts is only for technical reasons or not.   This move is forcing me to make an adjustment that I'd prefer not to make.  If I ultimately discover that not accommodating multiple personal accounts was a policy decision rather than a technical one, I'll be even more irked.  In the tit-for-tat thinking that preoccupies one's mind when in such a state, the thought would be that if Google is going to screw me....

A few years ago I had a column in the now defunct Educause Quarterly.  The pieces are preserved in Educause Reveiw Online.  This first essay entitled Innovations and Tragic Tories was meant to take a dual perspective approach - campus providers of IT services, on the one hand, and users of IT services, on the other, and discuss the conundrums that arise when older service offerings are replaced or cancelled without replacement.  The issue was how best to manage these conundrums.  In the piece I argued that the CIO or other high IT officers would need to put their own reputations on the line to facilitate effective transitions, particularly if the service changes were dictated by budgets cuts rather than the usual (not so) planned obsolescence. 

The parallel between that case and case of Google is not exact but I think it is sufficiently similar to make the connection.  Ten years ago Google was the Luke Skywalker of the Internet, with Microsoft in the role of Darth Vader.  It seems that as we grow older each of us turn into our fathers.  Is that what is happening here?

The move from Google Docs to Google Drive is not the only area where I'm being forced to accommodate service changes by Google.  After they announced they were shutting down iGoogle next year, I wrote this post on Replacing iGoogle.  Via that I discovered  They have a blog and in it they linked to my post, generating roughly four times the number of hits a post of mine usually gets.  It's certainly not sufficient volume to make Google reconsider their decision from a business perspective, but it was enough to convince me that I'm not the only one having these sort of thoughts.

However, unlike most of the others I did spend a significant amount of my work life as a leader in learning technology, so rather than simply a gut reaction to harp at Google, I've also been asking whether I have a responsibility too and that the right thing for me to do would be to establish a prof.arvan domain and get a prof.arvan account with Dropbox or Box for the file sharing.  I can see the argument, but so far I'm not there.  Here's why.

I didn't plan or intend to get a bunch of external users with the YouTube videos.  I went that route mainly because YouTube had developed the ability to automatically put in the timings for the captions once a transcript was uploaded and the further exotic ability to translate the captions into other languages.  I was committed to captioning my videos, so that was the focus.  I only discovered the external use after the fact, pure serendipity in my view.  And then I learned that the YouTube search engine rather than the Google search engine was the main driver for the serendipity.  So on the video part, it seems that YouTube is still the way to go and I don't want to abandon that.

Then there is that these other services are not free and though I can afford to pay their fees, it doesn't make sense to me to give my stuff away freely to others if I have to incur real out-of-pocket expenses myself in the process.  Surely, that is an approach that doesn't scale and doesn't replicate.  The way I do things may be idiosyncratic, but I always hope that others might try something similar.

Further, there is the idea that there has to be a lot of intentionality and knowing ahead of time it will work if you go the personal domain route.  It surely makes sense for Khan Academy.  It may make less sense for the rest of us who have orders of magnitude less market share.  And, at least in my case, I'm not doing this for the off chance that demand for my stuff will explode.  I'd be quite content if the volume remains low, as long as the demand is steady. 

Implicitly, Google seemed to be supporting my efforts.  It might not have been aware of the particular use case but by being Web based and free it was leaving that to the users.  It was simply being a master enabler of whatever the users came up with.  Now it seems the Web based part of the promise is breaking.  And that makes you ask, what other parts will break in the future?

Maybe it's time for me to become a WordPress guy.

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