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Working Together With Free Online Storage

In case you missed it, last week AOL announced that anyone with an AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) screenname (over 53 million people) will be given five gigabytes of online storage in early September. This is part of an overall strategy shift  away from relying on subscription fees to giving away its online services in an attempt to grow online advertising revenue.

The online file service will be provided by Xdrive, which was acquired by AOL about a year ago. Many analysts covering this announcement focused on the growing competition between the anticipated Google Gdrive  and the rumored SkyDrive from Microsoft. Others focused on the backup features of Xdrive saying how this could make it easier for consumers to automatically backup critical files. But how much trust are you ready to place in a free service?

I expect we will soon see tools that backup your Xdrive to your GDrive or…well, you understand where I am going.

To me this is an important trend because these services can change how people think about working together. There must be thousands (maybe millions) of people who are working with someone else on some project creating documents that need to be shared.  This could be anyone working on their own or are part of a small business in addition to those who volunteer their time with little leagues, parent-teacher groups, and any number of non-profit organizations.

Today, we store drafts of these documents on our computer, probably in the "My Documents" folder. Then we end up emailing these documents to our colleagues. But, with free online shared storage wouldn't it be easier if we just stored the documents there? It would eliminate this game of email tag and we could all see what the latest version contained. Although there are situations where this would not technically work, in most cases it makes sense.

Some of you may scoff at this by saying you must have documents stored locally because it is a better experience. Maybe that is the case for some, but I recall hearing the same arguments a few years ago about email. However, I would point out that Yahoo!, Hotmail, Gmail, and (surprisingly) Myspace have set a new level of expectations for consumer email (and these consumers, by the way, work in large corporations too). We don't just want a good email experience (although performance is important) but, rather, we want to access our email from anywhere too. Online email services represent over nine percent of Internet visits according to Hitwise  so this is not a passing fad; this is how most people expect to use email.

Many of you reading this have struggled to get more people on your intranet to use collaborative workspaces. The rise of online storage services may portend a longer-term change in attitude towards these types of products. Today, it is often the case that intranet users copy documents from "My Documents" into these workspaces in a thoughtful attempt to collaborate. Of course, this practice offers little benefit over simply emailing the documents and often leaves workspaces littered with abandoned copies.

Over time the distinction between working on our own and working with others could fade as online storage services start becoming the norm. But it could go well beyond this since collaborative workspaces not only help workgroups but have features the individual can use as well. These include wider accessibility to the individual's workspace, project management features a person can use for their own work, document versioning, and having their information securely backed up. The fact that it is now easier to transition from working by our self to working collaboratively with others is icing on the cake.

As the trend towards online file storage starts taking root the corporate intranet manager can build on this by touting the benefits of online workspaces for use by individual workers. However, they should take into consideration a person's need for flexibility and work/life balance. Advocating the use of an online workspace as a personal productivity tool may be a hard sell if they are hidden behind firewalls and only accessible from an intranet. Otherwise, we may see intranet users signing up for the consumer online storage services because they better meet their needs.

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