Using Email as Online Storage

I previously wrote about two of my observations regarding use of email among the young and technologically clueless college students. First observation was that none of my students ever had a straight POP3 or IMAP email account in their life. Every single email account they have ever used had a webmail interface and so in their minds, email is something that you do on a webpage. Email client to them is an oxymoron or some strange archaic piece of software, about as useful to them as a floppy drive.

Their primary mode of communication is IM, texting and naturally Facebook/Myspace. Email is something you when you need to send Christmas wishes to your grandmother, or complain about your grade to your professor.

Second observation was that if allowed, most of my students (as well as my coworkers) will try to avoid ever managing the file system directly. They use their desktop or My Documents folder as a big Temp file, and either delete files from it afterwards, or just ignore them and live with the mess. Very rarely do I see thought out directory trees or any hierarchical sorting in the file system on their machines.

My third observation is a direct outgrowth of the second one, and is related to the first. Since students no longer really use email as primary communication tool they decided to use it for something else – storage. They understand email, but do not understand the file system. So whenever they want to save something for later, they just email it to themselves – and i t becomes instantly available to them from anywhere via an easy to use web interface.

I think this mentality is heavily influenced by student mobility. Since not everyone owns a laptop, some people find themselves working on computers they do not own – for example workstations in a public computer lab, a laptop borrowed from a room mate, their home desktop and etc… How do you easily transfer files between computers in such an environment? You could use a flash drive but these are easy to loose or forget. Online storage is the only reliable way to handle it. And what is the easiest way to implement online storage? Via email of course.

I have to admit that I’m guilty of using my email this way as well. Each day I alternate between my home desktop, my work laptop, and one of the 3 or 4 teacher workstations at school. When I’m in a hurry I will sometimes send something to myself to pick it up from a different machine later because it is often the fastest, and least complicated thing to do. That of course doesn’t mean I approve of this behavior. To me it just doesn’t feel right. Email was not meant to be used this way and the whole procedure is silly. Your file ends up being stored twice – once in the inbox, once in the Sent Mail folder, and it makes a short trip between the webmail server, the outgoing server, the incoming server and back to the webmail. It’s a waste of bandwidth and it bothers me.

Are there alternatives? Yes, but none are as convenient or n00b friendly. Ideally, you would want a web service which is as easy t use as email whose sole function would be providing you with online storage. One such service I have been using recently is Xdrive. It’s not perfect though. Their online interface is horrid – cluttered, counter intuitive, and way to busy with buttons, panels and color. It insists on showing you your files both as a list and as a tree at the same time. It also has an impressive array of buttons, links and controls which are often redundant. It is the quintessential AOL school of design – seeing how these are the folks behind the application.

Xdrive Web Application

While I’m on the topic, I wanted to mention that there are two distinct ways to design your UI. There is the interface driven way, and the content driven way. The former puts emphasis on buttons, panels, levers, switches and blinkenlights and then stuffs contents into some small view port hole surrounded by interface elements. The later shows you content, and tries to minimize interface elements handling interaction in context aware way. Google excels at making context driven interfaces both for the web and for the desktop. Everyone else seems to be falling short in the web based area. AOL was always notorious for creating horrid interfaces that looked sleek, but were barely usable.

So it’s surprising that Xdrive Lite client is a content driven application. It sports a much cleaner interface, with much fewer buttons. There is virtually no clutter and the app is extremely easy to use. You copy files to your online storage space by simply dragging and dropping them from your file explorer application. It is actually working fairly well in Linux but not thanks to AOL or Xdrive naturally. It works because Adobe Air now runs on linux and so, accidentally the Xdrive client does too. File manipulation and downloads are done via clear, intuitive context menus.

Xdrive AIR App

I must say that I really like this app. So I often use it to shuffle small files between my work computer, my home desktop and my laptop in a hassle free way. It works great, it is light on resources and feels much more appropriate than spamming my own inbox.

Still, this is not a perfect solution for my rather clueless students because they inherently despise client software. Installing something is always a hassle. AIR apps install rather quickly and easily, but you need to have AIR installed first. So it is at least a 2 step procedure. Not to mention that public lab computers often do not have admin privileges that would allow them to install stuff. The web interface on the other hand is just to clunky to be useful. They’d have to learn to use it, and I’m sure that this would be a nuisance.

All our students naturally have Novell Netdrive accounts but the web interface for that thing was also designed by professional contortionists. I make them use it when they create HTML websites but I often must walk them through the process 4 to 5 times before it starts sinking in. Not that it is hard, or complex – it’s just new, and not very intuitive. Or rather what is intuitive to me (public websites go into PUBLIC_HTML folder) is alien and incomprehensible to them. Logging into webmail and emailing themselves is just more convenient, straightforward and familiar. I could try to break this habit, but then again who am I to say how people should use technology that’s available to them. If they want to use email as storage, then more power to them I guess… No matter how that annoys me. :P

[tags]email, webmail, xdrive, adobe air, air[/tags]

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11 Responses to Using Email as Online Storage

  1. Mats Rauhala FINLAND Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux says:

    For my own purposes I use my own computer through ssh/sftp, however what I would need is some service that would allow others to download my files. Sure there are free services, but they are a hassle and often difficult to use (rapidshare). Images then again are well supported with services like flickr and google image sharing

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Yup, running an ssh server at your house is another good solution, but it does require some know how. Also, I have yet to see an affordable dependable windows based ssh/sftp solution for windows.

    I was looking at this more from the point of view of an average windows user. :P

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  3. I used to have a script on my site which I was customizing to work as a google mail storage device, it would upload files (with a tag so you could then filter them if you wanted to use your primary email for the storage) and then it would list out all the files that you uploaded, there was no folder views or anything, it was fairly straight forward:
    Sign In -> Upload File -> Retrieve File

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    This is what I used as my base, then was building off that.

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  5. Jenny CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    On the subject of file backup, sharing and storage …

    Online backup is becoming common these days. It is estimated that 70-75% of all PC’s will be connected to online backup services with in the next decade.

    Thousands of online backup companies exist, from one guy operating in his apartment to fortune 500 companies.

    Choosing the best online backup company will be very confusing and difficult. One website I find very helpful in making a decision to pick an online backup company is:

    This site lists more than 400 online backup companies in its directory and ranks the top 25 on a monthly basis.

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  6. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I am guilty of doing the same (e-mailing to myself) too. I do use Google Docs (but it is limited to certain types of documents and is not as straightforward as other Google apps). But when I want to very quickly save something between work, laptop, home PC and girlfriend home PC, I used to send it on YahooMail or GMail. It was fast and simple.

    And then I discovered Wikis. And I don’t do it any more. When I want to share something (anything) between various PCs, I use Confluence (the Wiki wich is used by our company and also turned into a document management system). It is faster and easier than e-mailing to myself, and it is designed for that.

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  7. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    On the topic of ‘lusers using tech “incorrectly”‘, I remember one tech writer talking about how his tech-naïve wife ‘incorrectly’ saved text files – she’d open a new mail in her mail client, write the text she wanted to save, then go to File > Save As… and save it as a text file.

    Then the guy realised this way was more efficient – she always had her email client open, and his intuitively ‘correct’ way was to go through the start menu to open up an app and the overhead involved in that. Given that both methods have the same result, he concluded that we shouldn’t dismiss the naïfs out-of-hand.

    On the wiki thing – love them, especially for troubleshooting documentation. They update much more readily than a static doc and are more navigable. The only downside is that they’re not as accessible offline.

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  8. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Yes, the offline accessibility is not too good… ;-) lol
    But it is more efficient because your document is in only one “physical place”.

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Wikis are great but I noticed that they are still scary for lusers. Most of them still have markup language of sorts that may be scary (despite how easy it might be) and must be understood before they can be used efficiently.

    @vacri – oh man, that would drive me nuts. I mean it is perfectly logical, but it would annoy the shit out of me every time no matter how I tried to rationalize it. LOL

    But it’s true – I’m always amazed on how users find “innovative” ways to use technology. I guess we are just wired differently. When I want to do something I first consider an appropriate tool. I think “what would be the best piece of software to accomplish this?” – sometimes I even do some research before I start the task. This is because I want to have the right tool – even if I have to learn how to use it first. I know that this initial investment of time and effort will pay off in the long run as it will improve my productivity and make the work more pleasant and convenient for me.

    I think that a thought process of an average luser goes along the lines of “what tool that I already know could accomplish this”. And since the only tools they know are Outlook, Word, Excel and “The Internet” (which I recently found out is a synonym for Internet Explorer) they end up inventing very creative ways of doing things.

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  10. totallyHipMillenialUsername UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    So I stumbled upon this post from 2008, trying to determine if an idea I have is original. It’s funny, my intent is actually to exploit email servers as a source of unlimited cloud storage (by writing a simple app that will make the SAVE and OPEN functions transparent), without violating TOS.

    Sorry, it just seems funny given the context of the article.

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  11. Alphast Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    Good luck with that!

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