Put Your Files In Free Storage?

Having some space on the Web can be useful--but not for anything private

The World Wide Web has become an amazing cornucopia of free goodies. While giving products away may be a dubious business proposition, we consumers may as well enjoy it while it lasts.

The latest free service to blossom is online storage, with companies offering 20 megabytes or more of space on their servers. Twenty MB isn't a lot of space, and it would cost only 30 cents to get that much more on your computer, so it doesn't seem like a great deal. But you can do things with online storage that you can't with a regular hard drive. You can share files with friends or colleagues or easily get access to files from home, work, or on the road. My main reservation concerns the security and privacy of information stored online.

At its best, moving files to Web storage should be as simple as dealing with files on your computer. For starters, the file has to be there when you want it, and this requires an always-on connection to the Internet, the kind you get with a cable modem or digital subscriber line (DSL) phone hookup. But seamless Web storage also demands tight integration between the service and your computer's software.

I found two services that pull this off well: iDisk for the Macintosh and Driveway Corp.'s Driveway for Windows. Apple's iDisk is part of a suite of Web-based services, including free home pages and e-mail, recently launched by the computer maker. All require the use of Mac OS 9.

Once you sign up for a 20-MB iDisk, it appears as an icon on your desktop, just like any other drive. As long as you are connected to the Internet, you can drag files to and from it just as if it were a drive on your machine or a local-area network. You can also create a public folder that anyone can read and copy files from but not write to. Apple is considering making additional space available for a fee, but it hasn't committed to doing so.

If you're a Windows person, Driveway offers a similar service for anyone using Internet Explorer 5.0. Driveway gives you 25 MB free, with the opportunity to purchase more storage--or earn more by getting acquaintances to sign up. Once you've set Driveway up, you can get your files by clicking the Web Folders icon created by Internet Explorer. And if you use Microsoft Office 2000, you can load files from and save them to Driveway from Word or other Office applications. If you're working from a computer that doesn't have your Web Folders set up, you can get to your Driveway files, albeit less conveniently, using any browser to reach a password-protected page. You can also set up a shared folder that is accessible to designated users.

Two other online storage services I looked at were much less compelling. iDrive offers 50 MB of file storage plus "unlimited" space for saving copies of Web pages. It also offers software for collecting Web pages, sharing them with friends, and synchronizing file contents between your desktop and online folders. But compared with better integrated services, the fact that you can get to your files only through a Web browser makes iDrive less attractive.

INTRUSIVE. FreeDrive was so unappealing that I didn't even bother signing up. Not only did the registration procedure ask a number of personal questions with no assurance that the information would be kept private, the terms of service require that I accept ads and promotional e-mail from sponsors. With better alternatives available, it's easy just to say no.

The services promise to keep your private files confidential, but they don't offer much more than their word as assurance--along with the usual legal disclaimers warning that they may not be able to keep their word. There's no evidence that files are encrypted, either on the server or in transit, and a simple password doesn't offer much protection. So I wouldn't use these services to store anything you wouldn't want your competitors, your children, or a total stranger to see.

That's a serious limitation, but Web storage is still a handy way to share files and keep online copies of important, but not sensitive, files. With better security and stronger privacy, it could become a very useful tool.

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