During pretty much my entire three-plus year run at Lifehacker, there was a sense, and plenty of rumors, that Google was going to offer straight-up cloud storage for all its users. Google has the servers and space, they have the millions of users with Google accounts, and their goal is to get everyone using the web more (and looking at ads). Those rumors are popping up again. So what's holding Google back?
According to an excerpt from Stephen Levy's inside look, In the Plex, the reasoning against a "Google Drive" or "GDrive" was an argument against files themselves. Files are remnants of the middle-ages of personal computing, when hard drive space was a major consideration of a system's prowess. Why not keep everything somewhere safe, a place with infinite storage, and edit that file right there?
There are practical concerns, even if they're technical and possibly temporary. For example: Microsoft's Office suite, Apple's iWork, and Google Docs don't exactly trade files fluidly between one another, especially when a document is more than just simple text. Internet access is, while improving, not quite ubiquitous in the U.S. And while Google offers fairly robust security for a free product, any web-based account can be hacked or closed down for violations, leaving your stash of important documents behind an invisible wall.
There's also the real-world example I've seen in organizing a team of volunteers to produce a conference (TEDxBuffalo). Using Google Apps as our base, and Docs as our repository for collaboration, worked fine at first. But as members became more involved with various aspects of the production, and revisions became common, it quickly became confusing as to which document was our "gold standard" for sponsor submissions, speaker profiles, checklists, production, and so on.
You can "star" items in Docs, you can create a "collection" (which is, really, just a folder) that you title "Final Definite Serious Ready to Roll Documents," but it's still quite a headache making sure everybody can see that document, that only the right people have access to it, and that you have a very good view on what has happened to it. This is, of course, partly an organizational problem, and one that comes up on any shared productivity system. Google Docs has made some progress on this front, recently implementing a "comment-only" access scheme for documents.
But here's my pitch: keep Google Docs as the place to create, collaborate, comment, and work. Allow Gmail users to open attachments in Docs' cloud space, for quick viewing. But also give us a Google Drive, one that syncs up to desktops, as the place to keep our "Golden Copies." Not everyone will use it for that, but limiting the access space will help prevent misuse.
A 1GB or 2GB space is plenty big enough for the documents of most people and small organizations, and not so big that people will start trading full video seasons of The Wire. But with an actual file space, one that keeps different permissions than Docs, individuals and organizations can keep a stash of files that are their final products, their treasured references, their backups. Google even referenced the idea of a "Golden Copy" in a presentation to analysts.
Maybe Docs can improve its organization and design such that it's much more obvious how groups are organized, but in the meantime, Google could give us a do-anything space that serves many other Google Apps tools, too. Keep it simple, keep it safe and we'll all feel like our hard drives really are a local cache of an online life.
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.