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The future is cloudy

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Cloud computing may sound like an intimidating concept, but most of use it every day without realising it. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK embraced the cloud when he realised he could no longer rely on his own machines to keep his data safe. Here is his brief guide to the best places in the cloud for a range of services ranging from e-mail, file-sharing and live back-up to surveys, project management and online accounting.

I discovered the future when one laptop computer was stolen, and another crashed so badly, the hard drive got torn inside its casing and no data could be retrieved. The first time, I’d backed up everything online the night before, but it took a day to restore it to another laptop and almost a week to set up all my software the way I liked to work. The second time, the machine committed digicide late in the afternoon, and I lost all research and writing from that day ‚ including an entire chapter of my new book.

Everyone needs a catalyst for a major change in the direction of their lives and, for my digital life, that was mine.

It marked the beginning of my journey into the cloud. You may have heard of Cloud Computing: a complicated, expensive system of running software and services via the Internet and storing and accessing their data and files through this system. Many companies steer clear of it because they find the cloud metaphor a little disturbing: in serious heat, would it evaporate?

In reality, it should be called Vault Computing or Bunker Computing, because the applications and files all reside in something called a data centre. More secure you could hardly find: fortress-like facilities with massive generators for backup and access control that makes banks look like takeaway joints.

The cloud is not leak-proof. Online services have been known to be breached. And some users of these services become so complacent, they get careless with passwords and invite in the demons of data theft. But it’s still a sight and a site more secure then what most people use in the office.

There are many sites and services that promise you a new world in the twinkling of a hard drive, but the best truly stand out ‚ and many of them are free. These get my vote:

E-mail: Gmail.com, which gives you 8GB of mail storage at no cost.

Scheduling: Google Calendars, linked to a Gmail account.

Back-up: Windows Live SkyDrive, a Microsoft online service that gives you 25GB storage free.

File-sharing: DropBox, gives you 2GB free, 50GB for $10 a month.

Secure document storage: iSigned.com, SA-developed international service for high-security storage of important documents. $25 a month for 10GB

Notes: Evernote, an online equivalent of sticky notes.

Surveys: SurveyMonkey, free for small surveys, reasonable for the professional service.

Phone and chat: Skype, which can now be used on almost any device, including (some) digital TVs.

Customer management: Salesforce.com, comes at a modest fee, but does the work of a dozen personal assistants.

Project management: WhoDoes 2.0, a free online project management and collaboration tool.

Accounting: Saasu.com, an Australian service that is more flexible than most other online services, and free for less than 20 invoices a month.

Mailing lists: MyListManager.co.za, a reasonably-priced South African service for managing mailshots, subscribers and surveys.

There are many more, but these are the services that mean I am no longer emotionally attached to my laptop computer. As long as I have an Internet connection ‚ not always guaranteed, I confess ‚ and a device with a browser, I can access my entire business from any computer anywhere in the world.

* Do you have a favourite online service that has rescued you from hard drive disaster? Please tell us, briefly, where to find it and what it did for you.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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I was wondering if you have compared Saasu to My Business Online (the locally developed solution from Pastel)? These accounting solutions hold great promise for small business.

Also, it seems obvious to my mind that any South African solution must inherently be better than its Australian counterparts, no so?”,”body-href”:””}]

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