Is Google Going into the Storage Business?

No, we don’t think Google is buying up rental storage warehouses–as least not yet. But online storage is another matter entirely. Now that there’s been an information leak about the elusive GDrive, what can we expect? And more to the point, should we be concerned that Google wants to store so much information in its own servers?

They say that loose lips sink ships. In the case of the search engine field, loose notes set off a flurry of speculation, at least when Google is involved. Especially when those loose notes confirm the existence of something a number of analysts have already speculated about.

As has happened so often before, we have an intrepid blogger to thank for this information. The loose notes were apparently part of a slide presentation made by Google executives and later published on the company’s website. The notes were taken down, but what the blogger discovered leaves us with food for thought.

“With infinite storage, we can house all user files, including emails, web history, pictures, bookmarks, etc. and make it accessible from anywhere (any device, any platform, etc.),” the notes originally stated. According to some reports, Google CEO Eric Schmidt stated in his presentation that one of the company’s goals is to “store 100 percent” of consumer information.

The PowerPoint presentation was replaced with a 94 page Adobe Acrobat file that did not contain speaker’s notes. And Google spokeswoman Lynn Fox refused to comment on any specific service (such as the elusive GDrive), but she did confirm that the presentation had been released onto the web by mistake. “We deleted the slide notes because they were not intended for publication.” As to the GDrive, “We are constantly working on new ways to enhance our products and services for users, but have nothing to announce at this time.”

Looking at Google’s recent products and services, one could say that the company was already heading in the direction of creating a GDrive. GMail stores all of a user’s emails, and with the size of the digital inbox, there’s never a need to delete anything. The Search Across Computers feature of Google’s upgraded Desktop Search actually makes copies of the text files located on all of the computers in a user’s personal network. The files are kept for only a limited amount of time, but still, for that amount of time, the information is stored on Google’s servers.

With many users forgetting to back up the hard drives of their home and work PCs, this service could be a real boon. Just think: no more worries about crashes that take your data with them. If you’re like me, and you only upgrade your computer when you absolutely have to, you won’t have to worry about trying to transfer information from one computer to another (especially if the old computer is far gone enough that you’re not sure you can do the transfer). Just set it up, get the machine online, and download the data from Google. It wouldn’t make your hard drive pointless, because it will still be faster to access the documents and other data you need from your hard drive than from Google’s centralized computers.

Not having to worry about losing your data in the next computer crash isn’t the only advantage of a potential GDrive service. When Google introduced its GMail service, it broke all records for the amount of storage offered for an online digital mailbox. To refresh your memory, at that time Yahoo!, Microsoft’s Hotmail, Lycos and other email services thought free space in the single-digit MB range would be sufficient for their users (Lycos still does, annoyingly enough). Google offered users an entire GB of storage when it launched the GMail beta, and has continued to raise that amount since, leaving its competitors scrambling to catch up and avoid losing customers in a spontaneous storage war. Who would have thought a free service could matter so much?

I mentioned the GMail service to point out that everyone can use more storage, and that’s exactly what a potential GDrive service might offer its users. To update an old saying, a picture had better be worth a thousand words; it takes up far more space! With all of the audio, music, image, and video files that many web surfers and technophiles store on their computers these days, it’s no wonder that some invest in extra hard drives or other types of storage.

There are a number of potential downsides, of course, which I’ll discuss in more detail later in this article. First of all, however unlikely this might seem, what happens if Google has a crash that takes your GDrive with it? Second, and more importantly, is the privacy issue. If your data is stored in Google’s central computers, who else can get at it, other than you? The answer to this second question concerns many people, and might affect whether the GDrive will ever see the light of day, even as one of Google’s eternal “beta” products.

Storing data in a central location and accessing it from a computer that effectively acts as a terminal is a very old idea. Sun has been pushing it for a long time with its Network Computer, which has never caught on with consumers (though it has been used to a certain degree by businesses). This point is worth mentioning because it brings the recent Google-Sun technology alliance to mind. Could a certain cross-fertilization of ideas be taking place?

It’s more likely, though, that Google is doing something it has done several times before when branching into a new service: look at how everyone else is doing it, find a way to give it a new twist, and come out with something so much better that the companies who have been doing it longer must now play catch up. That’s what Google did with GMail, and when it comes to online storage, plenty of firms are already in that field.

America Online and Yahoo! offer online storage for their customers. A large number of companies, including Kodak and Sony and many others, offer online photo sharing and storage. Microsoft is reportedly looking at ways to expand its own online storage services for its customers.

Convenience has helped to drive the online storage business, which of course is one of the benefits Google would be pushing with its GDrive. With online storage, a consumer can access his or her data from any device capable of connecting to the Internet. But of course it’s this very point—ease of data accessibility–that raises concerns.

In all honesty, I expect Google to work hard on the security and privacy issues surrounding any possible GDrive. And it’s entirely possible that some of those sounding the alarm on these issues may be making a bigger fuss than necessary. For instance, if you read Mike McEwan’s recent article in which he reviews the Google Desktop upgrade that includes Search Across Computers, you’ll see that he makes an interesting discovery. It is not nearly as difficult to set up the service in a configuration that does not index everything as the Electronic Frontiers Foundation seemed to imply when they warned people about it.

But there are other issues that have nothing to do with Google’s own hardware. One of them is legal, and yes, it concerns privacy. According to Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s technology and liberty program, there are different protections covering information on a person’s own PC, and that same information being held or stored by a third party. For example, law enforcement officials can often ask or demand information from banks about an account, without the account holder’s knowledge. While the laws governing online storage of information are less clear, the potential parallel is unsettling to say the least.

“I’m sure Google does worry about this question: if we are going to store everybody’s data, what are our obligations with regard to privacy and security and what will be our legal obligations to protect it? They have all this private data and if it escapes in an unauthorized way, it can do an awful lot of harm,” said Steinhardt.

A somewhat more pedestrian concern is bandwidth. Not everyone has a broadband connection to the Internet. No matter how much data you’re dealing with, you can download or upload it only so fast. And this could become an issue not only for those with slow Internet connections. When Google started offering Google Analytics (in beta, naturally), the company underestimated the demand for the service. As a result, many users were frustrated during the first week because they could not connect to their accounts consistently. Analytics is the kind of service that appeals specifically to businesses; what kind of online traffic jam can we expect from a service that will appeal to everyone with a computer? Can even Google’s legendary data centers handle such an onslaught?

Of course, a lot of this is going to depend on how many people decide they want to use the service, which is, after all, currently still theoretical. The concerns are real, however, and Google had best be prepared to address them before putting the GDrive into beta.

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