Got questions about Google's new cloud storage product, Google Drive? Here are some answers.
What is Google Drive?
Google Drive is a way to store your files on Google's servers, or "in the cloud". If you run the free Google Drive application, then you get a folder on your computer (Windows or OSX) that looks just like a directory on your hard disk that you can drag your files into. Anything stored in that folder is kept on your hard disk, and also copied to your account in the cloud. You can access those files from drive.google.com or from other computers, including mobile devices.
Google Drive is also the new name for Google Docs, which is Google's suite of web-based productivity tools — its word processor, spreadsheet and presentation app. Documents that you create using these tools now show up in your Google Drive. Sort of.
What do you mean, "sort of"?
For the time being, while you can see documents created or shared with you using the Google Docs tools in your Google Drive on your computers, the data in those files is not stored or copied to your computers. Rather, what you see in your Google Drive are links to your files. If you open one, it'll open in the browser-based Google app.
Files that you drag into your Drive from your hard disk are actually copied to the cloud. They're also synchronised to your other computers that use Google Drive.
What is synchronisation?
One of the coolest things ever. When you use a synchronising storage product, like Google Drive, any file that you put in the drive, and anything you change that's stored in the drive, is automatically updated, not just in the cloud, but on all the other devices that you have connected to the Drive, too. So you can start working on a file on one computer, close it and then open it on a second computer, and what you'll see is the version you closed on the first one.
There is a potential danger when using synchronisation: if you update a file before your cloud service has sent you the latest version, you can end up with collisions or version conflicts. Most cloud storage services will flag conflicts with file name or extension changes, but untangling conflicting files is never fun. Files accessed directly from cloud-based services, like Google Docs, don't suffer from this problem, since changes are made directly on the web version of the file.
Just to be clear: I can store any file? Any folder?
Yes. Within file size and space limits, anything you can store on your hard drive can also be stored in a cloud drive.
You can also move entire folders in your Google Drive.
What you can't do with Google Drive — that you can with some other services — is sync files or folders in place. With Google Drive, if you want to sync a file that's buried in a folder on your hard drive, but you don't want to move it to your Google Drive, you can't. You have to drag it to the Google Drive. Other services, like Microsoft Live Mesh, SugarSync, Wuala and Cubby, let you sync files or folders without moving them.
I keep hearing about Dropbox. Is it the same thing? Is Google going to kill it?
Dropbox is the tech elite's favoured sync-and-store product. It's very popular, and it's even easier than Google Drive to set up and use. It's especially easy to share files using Dropbox.
Google Drive is a big threat to Dropbox, but if you like both, use both.
Tell me more about sharing with a cloud drive.
Emailing files around for review among co-workers is the old way to share data; with cloud storage, now all you have to do is email a link to a file stored on your drive. All the services let you mark a file or folder for sharing, and then invite people to view or download it.
However, if you're going to be asking people to comment on or update a file, you can run into versioning problems. You don't want people working on the file at the same time. In-place online editing products like Google Docs are better for real-time collaboration.
What makes Google Drive different from all of the other competitors doing this?
There are at least 10 direct competitors to Google Drive. All have the benefits. Google, not surprisingly, touts its search capabilities as one big differentiator. In addition to being able to quickly search within the document files that you upload to Google Drive, it will also be able to search on scanned text in images you've uploaded, using optical character recognition running in the Google Cloud. Additionally, pictures stored on Google Drive can be searched by Google Goggles, the company's service that finds images based on description, like "Eiffel Tower", or "Mount Rushmore".
Google Drive also has good prices if you need more than the free 5GB that everyone gets.
Wait, I'm supposed to pay for this?
You don't have to. Google will give you 5GB of completely free storage, which is pretty useful for storing files to use across computers, to share or that you need to access on your mobile device. But if you want to store large archives of photos or videos, you can pay for more storage. 25GB is $2.49 per month; 100GB is $4.99 per month. There are plans all the way to a ridiculous 16 terabytes of storage.
What was that about mobile?
Yes, there are mobile apps for most of these services. Google Drive is only available on Android right now, although an iPhone app is coming. With cloud storage mobile apps, you can see what's stored in your cloud drive easily, and then download or view files as needed. It won't use up all of your storage the moment you set it up.
Is Google going to be reading the files I store on Google Drive?
Under the heading, "Your Content in our Services" in Google's terms of service, Google states, "You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours."
This means that Google can't use your content for commercial purposes without your consent. However, the terms of service also state that, "you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide licence to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make, so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this licence are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting and improving our Services, and to develop new ones."
For content that is yours, Google can't re-use it for its own purposes. But it can use content you upload in order to serve you. This can include integrating services together (like reading your scanned pictures in order to OCR them), and it can include analysing your files to target advertisements to you. Google already does this in Gmail. Google doesn't currently serve ads in Google Docs (now called Google Drive), but it may, according to its licence agreement, use data about the content you upload to target ads to you anywhere on the service.
Google may also give up your data in response to a legal demand, like a subpoena. If you want your cloud storage to be a little more out of touch, you might be interested in Wuala, which has no storage servers in the United States. Or you might just want to keep your data off the internet.
Are there features missing from Google Drive?
Google only lets you synchronise files and folders placed in the Google Drive folder. The iOS apps aren't out yet, and there's no news of versions for Windows Phones or BlackBerry. (Versions for Linux and for the Chrome OS that's on the Chromebooks are in the works, though.) Google Drive doesn't copy your Google Docs data to your computer, so you cannot access those files when offline. Also, it does not appear that Google Drive is available yet for users of business-class Google Apps accounts.
Why don't I have it yet?
Like all of Google's launches, Drive has been released in the US first, and is being rolled out across Australia in tiers over the next few days. So, if you don't have it yet, hang onto your seat — it's coming soon.
Got more questions? Add them in the comments or email the author; we'll add to the story as needed.