Friday, 22 July 2011

More platforms than Clapham junction

It used to be professional IT that had to cope with a large variety of platforms and operating systems, but innovation in recent years, particularly the development of web services, means that individual users are likely to meet an increasing number of very different environments, even for fairly simple requirements. For every one of these, there are issues of familiarisation, protection and authentication that need to be addressed.

At the start of the home computing story, we could store data locally and back up our key files to a floppy disk, or later something like an Iomega drive. Now we have a bewildering array of possibilities including very large capacity home network attached storage. I'm just getting to grips with the WD My Book Live which has 2 Tb capacity and a price less than £100 before you add VAT and delivery. That's less than £50 per Terabyte! If you prefer online storage and don't have a capped broadband deal, the likes of Microsoft's Skydrive, or the Apple iDisk (part of the current offering) or the forthcoming iCloud, may be even more attractive.

Skydrive is well worth getting to know because it supplies free storage and Office applications - all of a sudden we have a real document sharing and update environment for private users, something that in the past was the province of the better-organised professional IT shop. I suspect that things that I've been able to introduce to corporate projects through the innovative use of Sharepoint will rapidly become commonplace for groups, clubs, societies- anyone with a common purpose and the need to maintain documents together.

But just think what this means in terms of the number of platforms for home computing - you don't have to be an extreme case to use Windows and/or Mac systems, iOS or Android or Nokia smartphone, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Picasa, MS Office or Open Office, and maybe a Kindle reader. That's before we've thought about your e-mail system, your choice of browser or browsers, various plug-ins such as Adobe Flash and Adobe Air, Twitter, Windows (MSN/Live) Messenger, Facetime (on Apple products), online banking (card reader to give additional authentication), a multiplicity of online shopping platforms, Skype, Wordpress or Blogger. And you'd be mad to venture out on the Internet (particularly using a PC platform) without virus protection. Your data is important, and you should have a strategy and the facilities to back it up (see above). Every one of these does useful work, but every one of them also needs to be maintained and can carry a burden in terms of time if not of expense. Why does Adobe have to pester me to agree with its terms every time it updates one of its plug-ins?

I don't think there's any good and easy answer to this one. The big suppliers would like to make us dependent on, loyal to, and advocates of their offerings, but no one offering is ideal for all purposes. I use Microsoft Office on PCs (2003), Mac (2011), and now Skydrive (360). Each has its differences or subtleties. We're just going to have to learn to understand the quirks of the different platforms and to discourage (by voting with our feet) the ones that are least easy to use and maintain.