The days of keeping your data locked inside a big hard drive on one machine are over.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Nov. 30 2010 5:45 PM

In Praise of Disposable Computing

The days of keeping your data locked inside a big hard drive on one machine are over.

(Continued from Page 1)

I also use several online services to liberate me from storing data locally. Because I use Gmail and Google Calendar for my e-mail and appointments, I can get at that data from any computer or other device that's connected to the Web. This also reduces the chance of data theft—if someone steals my laptop, they won't find any private e-mail. I use Google's Chrome Web browser because it's speedy and cross-platform, and also because it offers easy-to-use bookmark syncing. As I switch from one computer to the next, my browsing experience follows me; anything I save on one computer is instantly available on every other one.

I use Google Docs for collaboration—my wife and I, for instance, keep a Docs spreadsheet with our family budget. But the most important tool I use for document-sharing is Dropbox, an amazing app that lets you sync your files to multiple machines across the Internet. Dropbox—which works on the Mac, Windows, Linux, Apple's iOS devices, Android, and BlackBerry—sets up a special folder on your computer. Anything you put in this folder becomes available anywhere else you've got DropBox. I use Dropbox to store all my Word and Excel documents and my reporting notes. When I bought my new MacBook, all I had to do to get all of my documents was sign in to DropBox.

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This makes for a tremendously flexible working experience. As I've explained before, I store most of the important notes in my life in a giant text file—it contains notes on every interview I conduct, story ideas, to-do lists, grocery lists, and lots of other information that streams into my life. I used to have to e-mail that file to myself so that I could get access to it everywhere. Now I just store it in DropBox, and it comes in handy all the time. A couple weeks ago, I was writing a column while traveling in Austin and needed access to an interview I'd conducted months earlier. With Dropbox, it was right there—I just searched through the text file and got what I needed. (There's a free version of Dropbox that offers 2 GB of storage space; you can pay $10 or $20 a month to get 50 or 100 GB.)

Disposable computing isn't for everyone just yet. My way of using computers—trying my hand on many of them at the same time, and switching from old machines to new ones at the drop of a hat—is far from the norm. But that's changing. The average American household now contains more than 2 computers (PDF), and with the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and other portable devices, that number is rising fast. The days of keeping your data locked inside a big hard drive on one machine are over; the future is portability and disposability. Just pretend you're going to get rid of your computer tomorrow—you'll be happy you did.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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