Google’s Cr-48 Chrome Notebook pilot program generated a lot of buzz in the tech community when, late last year, laptops started appearing on people’s doorsteps–laptops with solid-state hard drives, no capslock keys, and built-in WiFi and 3G capabilities. The laptops were sent to people who, as Google put it, were “living on the web […] doing everything in the browser, from using web apps to storing all your files online.”
You can take their quiz to find out if you’re living on the web–but teens most definitely are. As adults, I think we get pretty settled into having our own computers at home, our own computers at work, and moving back and forth between them. But teens may be sharing a family computer at home, using computer labs at school, and doing homework and playing games on the computers at the library; they lead much more fluid technological lives with fewer fixed points. We need to be familiar with websites, apps, programs, and services that allow the user identical access from multiple devices–with things that keep their data in the cloud.
Wikipedia has an extensive description of the cloud and its uses, but the basic idea is that with services that use the cloud, users don’t have to know where their data is to do or enjoy something. Gone are the days of saving your essay to a disk or burning it to a CD or putting it on a flash drive to move from school to home to the library; now you can just work on the document in Google Docs and have access from any computer with an Internet connection–or even access on your phone if there isn’t a computer nearby or available. Want to show off photos from your last vacation? You don’t have to print photos or burn them to a CD; you just put the photos up on Facebook and then you can access them wherever you are. When you want to listen to music, you could fire up iTunes or Windows Media Player on your home computer… or you could use an Internet radio service like Pandora or last.fm or Grooveshark and listen from anywhere. The telecommunications infrastructure for streaming data certainly isn’t available everywhere and to all people, but where it is, it makes data and entertainment much more accessible.
Especially in libraries where computers are often wiped when they restart and installing new software–or even getting permission to do so–is slow and laborious, using cloud-based services seems painless in comparison. Check out these sites and services:
- Photo sharing: Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket, and imgur all allow for photo upload and sharing. Some have social aspects built in, too.
- Video: YouTube remains the most popular way to share and watch videos easily and has a strong community aspect, but Vimeo also allows you to upload larger files and also gives you the option of letting others download your videos. Hulu (which is free and has ads) and Netflix (which requires a subscription) are a great way to watch current television shows after they air without having to own a DVR, and again, they’re accessible from anywhere.
- Music: Pandora, last.fm, and Grooveshark all allow you to create custom “radio stations” where you define what you want based on an artist, genre, or general tag and then it supplies you with songs that are like that; by rating those songs up or down, these services become better at predicting what you’ll like. And since your preferences and stations are specific to your account and stored in the cloud, you can listen to your custom stations from anywhere. Grooveshark also lets you listen to specific songs individually.
- Games: Facebook, especially because of its social networking dominance, is a huge avenue for games. FarmVille is one of the most popular, but there are zillions of games that require no installation or extra signups beyond just a click or two. You can see what your friends are playing and even share high scores across different computers and mobile devices as well as playing in a browser. Kongregate and New Grounds offer heaps of Flash-based games across different genres.
- Chat: Meebo Messenger lets you collect all of your different chat and IM accounts into one place, and since your contacts list is kept in the cloud, you can sign in from any computer and see what all of your friends are up to with no software necessary.
- Google Docs allows you to access documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and drawings from anywhere and also lets you share them to allow for collaboration (I would have killed for this during group projects when I was in high school!).
- Google Calendar lets you keep track of where you need to be and when and also allows you to share calendars with others, so if your manga club meets most Thursdays but not all of them and your club members use Google Calendar, you can share with them a calendar that shows when and where you’ll be meeting.
- Remember the Milk is a web-based to-do list manager. If you pay for the Pro version, you can sync to your mobile phone.
- Delicious and Pinboard both let you save all of your bookmarks on the web–helpful if you’re trying to do reference from a computer you don’t normally use or if your hard drive gets wiped. You can also organize and tag bookmarks for easier access later and publish lists of bookmarks for other people to use.
- Simplenote lets you take plaintext notes and sync them between the web, your computer, and your mobile device. Evernote (which was recently mentioned in School Library Journal) lets you save just about anything–web sites, tweets, photos, voice notes, and more–for review later. It also has OCR for photos that you take, so you can snap a picture of the back of a book and then have that summary available later as text.
- File storage: Dropbox is like a hard drive on the web. Store any files you want and have them automatically synced among different Macs and PCs. Because Dropbox is about files, it’s a little more useful when you have a computer all your own, but it’s also handy for web or mobile access.
What are some of your favorite web- or cloud-based services?