It sounds like the original dumb idea: free hard-disk space on the Internet, and only a measly 25 MB or so, in an age when a single Zip disk can hold 10 times that and notebook computers come with 100 times as much. But I recently took a closer look. What I discovered was that free Internet disk space has little to do with storage. It's more about convenience and collaboration.
By tucking away your work on a Net company's hard drive, it's accessible anytime, anywhere. You don't have to lug a laptop home from the office. You can get your files from any computer with a Net connection. And you can share files.
Sometimes you can even set up multiple passwords so a colleague can change a presentation while a client can only view it.
Dozens of companies offer free storage. Some are specialized, such as myplay.com, which handles only music files stored in the MP3 format. Others, such as Desktop.com and MagicalDesk.com, give away disk space as part of a suite of office applications, including e-mail, address books, calendars, and reminders. I looked at four that focus on what I need: a place to store and retrieve stuff easily.
The easiest to use are Driveway and FreeDrive. Driveway gives you 25 MB to start; you can earn as much as 100 MB by sharing folders, urging friends to sign up, and filling out surveys. FreeDrive gives you 50 MB. You can share by notifying friends via e-mail. They can view the contents or download files, but they can't upload, modify, or delete them. Of the two, I found FreeDrive more intrusive. Its sign-up process demands personal information, such as age, profession, and interests. Plus, you can't opt out of e-mail ads that may be targeted to you, and colleagues who want access to your folders will have to get their own accounts.
To use the free 25 MB at X:drive, you download and install a small program. X:drive then acts like a drive on your computer or corporate network. You can open, edit, drag, and drop files from X:drive without downloading them first. An additional gigabyte of space is $19.99 a month.
My favorite is i-drive (www.idrive.com). But installing it is so tricky I almost hesitate to recommend it. The company started off giving away drive space, but it has added a couple of nifty tools that make it particularly useful for clipping and storing stuff from the Web. It now offers unlimited space for anything you collect on the Web, though files uploaded from your desktop must still fit into 50 MB. Web partners, such as ZDNet Group and MP3.com, can transfer software and music files directly into your i-drive.com account, so you don't have to download and then upload them there (X:drive has a similar feature with partners such as CNET).
A clipping tool called Filo lets you capture pages that ordinarily can't be bookmarked, such as e-commerce and airline receipts or newspaper stories that will move into paid archives by tomorrow. But while i-drive worked fine with Internet Explorer, it disabled the Netscape Navigator browser on my office PC by resetting the proxy configuration most companies use to let staffers onto the Web. Even after I fixed that, I had to call i-drive to get the tool to work.
By now, my little space on the Web is beginning to join my daily routine. I've stashed important files so colleagues can use them while I'm out of the country next month, and I can get at them even if Third World phone systems can't deal with my company's dial-up network. Better yet, it gives me a place to put personal stuff I'm squeamish about keeping on my office computer, such as income tax records and brokerage accounts. Not to mention my resume.