A step closer to cleaning up the mobile cloud mess

Cloud storage services are great, but in mobile they suffer from a double whammy of separation and inconsistent support

No matter how much storage you have, it's never enough. No matter where you've copied a file, it's not on the device you currently have with you. Plus, reconciling the multiple versions is a painstaking, error-prone process likely to eliminate the copy you wanted to keep. That's why there's cloud storage, providing access to the same file from multiple computers and mobile devices. Dropbox, Box, Google Drive (what had been Google Docs), and Microsoft SkyDrive are the most broadly available and most popular.

In fact, chances are you have several of them, perhaps even multiple accounts on one or more for work and personal needs. Although your files are broadly available on such services, they're often inchoate. If you use mobile devices, it's even a messier reality, as the apps you use to access documents vary widely in their supported cloud storage services. Almost all work with Dropbox and Box, but even second-tier offerings such as Google Drive and SkyDrive aren't supported broadly -- and forget about the third- and fourth-tier options.

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What we need is an integrator, a single portal to all your cloud storage services. On a PC or Mac, you can largely simulate that arrangement by creating virtual drives for many of the cloud storage services and moving files as you would with any other local disk or network file share. The major holdout from this native approach, Box, finally added that capability this month. But there's no equivalent in the popular mobile OSes such as iOS and Android.

AppSense's free DataNow app takes us a step in that direction. It lets you access Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive, Citrix ShareFile, FTP, and WebDAV storage repositories, as well as those in AppSense's own storage service -- but not Box -- from one app. You can then manage files on them all, including moving or copying files from one storage service to another.

Using AppSense's admin tools with a corporate edition of the app, you can apply corporate policies to files originating in corporate file shares, working with Active Directory groups and policies to avoid having a separate cloud storage management system for mobile and desktop users. Plus, you get Windows and OS X clients for a unified cloud storage management approach across desktop and mobile devices. AppSense User Virtualization Platform customers get the DataNow Essentials service for free; others can subscribe to the DataNow Essentials service for $59 per user per year.

I found the notion of DataNow very compelling when I saw it in beta earlier this year, but I learned many years ago that demos often don't reflect the product reality. I waited until DataNow became available for real, which happened late last week. DataNow is offered for iOS and for Android.

DataNow is a worthwhile introduction to your Android or iOS app portfolio, but the user interface isn't very obvious after you've added your storage services. I suspect many users who try it will give up on it quickly -- don't. Here's how to use it:

  • Ignore the > icon at the right of each service's name in your storage list; tapping it opens an information screen for your account, showing free storage and the like, as well as providing an Unlink Account button. That's nice, but not what you actually use DataNow to do.
  • Tap the storage service name -- not the > button, as you would expect -- to access your files. Although tapping the service name is common in iOS apps, the way the names are presented in DataNow on the iPhone look more like descriptions than tappable labels. On the iPad, it's a bit more obvious that they should be tapped.
  • To manage your files -- the key utility in DataNow -- tap the document icon to the left of a filename, rather than the filename itself, to open a tray of buttons: Download (to copy the file to your current device), Transfer (to move it to a different service, with the option of encrypting it as you do), Lock (to encrypt it; AppSense has free Windows and OS X apps to encrypt and decrypt files for use with DataNow), Delete, and Share (to email it). Likewise, tap the folder icon to the left of the folder name to open a tray with one option: Delete.
  • Tap the file name to open a preview -- if DataNow knows the format, which it doesn't always (in my testing, it couldn't open the older .doc, .xls, and .ppt file formats, though AppSense says those file types are supported). iOS's native Quick Look facility is better at document previews and would be a preferable choice, though Android has no such capability. DataNow's limited support of file types means you can't send always the document to another app in iOS, such as Quickoffice or GoodReader, because the standard iOS share tool is available only once your document is open. This is not a big deal in Android, where you can transfer the document to a local folder and open it via the desired app directly (which iOS does not do).
The AppSense DataNow app's list of services (left) and controls for a file (right)
The AppSense DataNow app's list of services (left) and controls for a file (right)
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