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Head Out Of The Clouds: Why Local Storage Matters
Date: Oct 18, 2012
Author: Ray Willington
Getting Real With The Cloud
Smartphones, tablets and computers are constantly consuming and creating more and more content. And with that comes massive amounts of data consumption. The amount of sharing that takes place on today's smartphones and tablets is astounding, and every instance of that requires data -- and storage. Lately, it seems as if companies are dealing with these new realities by leaning heavily on the cloud. But trusting your precious data solely to the cloud can be a risky bet.

Looking specifically at the iPhone 5, the Galaxy S III, the new iPad and pretty much every flagship mobile device that has shipped in the last six months, one thing that we expected was more local storage. After all, 64GB has been the top end storage option for most devices these last few years. Surely Apple would increase the internal storage after two full years, right? Wrong. And Apple isn't alone. Flagship phones from HTC, LG, Samsung and others are all stopping at 64GB yet again. Is more storage space necessary for most people? Of course not, and you may argue that keeping any more than 64GB worth of data on your mobile device isn't wise -- after all, what if you lose it? But to me, that's beside the point. Cloud storage needs to grow with mobile/local storage. If there's a 64GB device, there should be an accompanying service that provides 64GB of cloud backup to provide the best of both worlds: lots of storage on-hand, and the ability to rest easy that everything is backed up remotely.

Files are growing larger, not smaller. Increasing screen resolutions are encouraging us to load full HD movies onto our phones. Increasingly large e-mail inboxes are taking up more room. Higher quality MP3 collections are bulging. And when you look at the general trend in SSDs and HDDs, you see that capacity is still important. No hard drive maker comes out with a new storage device that's smaller than the one the company shipped a year ago. So if the HDD and SSD world understands that bigger is better when it comes to storage, why hasn't the mobile world grasped the concept?
I'm starting to believe that we have "the cloud" to blame. Storing files in offsite locations, accessible via the Internet, is becoming increasingly more common. But only in the past couple of years has the cloud truly taken the mainstream by storm. It has been pitched as a savior to storage. It seems limitless, and ubiquitous. Just store a song or file in the cloud, and access it from anywhere. If it's so easy, why even bother with internal storage? Why would you tie files locally to a single device when you could simply access it in the cloud?  I have a few thoughts on that as well.
A Case For Local Storage and Backup
While the cloud, in theory, is an excellent alternative to shoving costly storage upgrades in mobile devices, it doesn't quite deliver in practice. For starters, streaming isn't always practical. Not every town has LTE, and even 3G has sidestepped smaller towns. Attempting to access larger files (movies and financial documents, just as two examples) over cellular broadband connections can be a huge pain. If you happen to slip inside of a building with thick concrete walls, good luck getting service. If you're streaming music in the car and drive through a dead zone, that's a pretty frustrating experience. But the crux of the issue here is reliability. Frankly, having access to mobile data isn't as reliable as having access to internal storage, and when dealing with sensitive documents, the stickler in me squirms when thinking of leaving access to chance.

Secondly, data isn't unlimited. It hasn't been for a long time. Even those on "unlimited" plans have limits and throttle points. If you rely solely on mobile data to access your cloud music, for example, you'll probably burn through your monthly data limit very quickly. We're living in a world where cloud usage is being increasingly encouraged, but data usage is being increasingly throttled while cost continues to rise. These two facts are simply at odds with one another, to the detriment of consumers.

It's also dubious to have your phone only be useful if it's connected to the Internet. There are times when a connection to the Internet won't be available. What about those times when you travel overseas and don't want to pay for massive roaming charges? One could argue that these predicaments are a couple of the reasons why Google's Chromebook concept hasn't gained much traction. At the end of the day, there is a lot of value in having core content available locally, while using the cloud only as an extension -- not as a crutch.

Samsung has even been giving buyers of its flagship products a whopping 50GB of Dropbox storage space. While this is most certainly a generous offer, it's usefulness hinges on fast broadband access. If you can't access the Internet, what good does the cloud do for you? If you're constantly hitting your data limit, how frequently are you going to seriously rely on the cloud?

There's nothing wrong with having one's cake and eating it too. Cloud storage is fantastic when it's available and works, but as phones and tablets increasingly become primary work machines in a lot of on-the-go instances, being able to rely first on local storage is paramount. And it's something that I fear is being looked at less now that the cloud is the buzzword du jour. Yes, select Android phones allow you to bolster your storage with a microSD card, but that's not an ideal solution either.  In my view, there's still a very real need for fast, reliable, internal storage to continue growing in mobile devices.

Does everyone need 128GB or 256GB in a phone? No, but so-called experts also figured that under 1MB of RAM would be enough memory for desktop systems "forever". With apps growing larger, one could conceivably fill up a 64GB phone with those alone, and something tells me we just aren't in a place to rely on the cloud for everything else. Not yet, anyway. Oh and as the saying goes "back-up early and often" folks.  Trusting your data to the Cloud or your fragile handset is like walking a tightrope without a safety net.

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