Last weekend I found myself with the scenario no solo web designer wants to be faced with: a dead laptop. It was eighteen months old and while it was from Hewlett Packard, a reputable company, it’s always had problems over overheating. Like a lot of modern laptop makers, HP tried to pack as much processor power as they could into a sleek design that would turn eyes on the store shelf. They actually do offer some free repairs for a list of half a dozen maladies caused by overheating but not for my particular symptoms. When I have a free afternoon, a big pot of coffee and lots of music queued up I’ll give them a call and see if I can talk them into fixing it.
Once upon a time having a suddenly dead computer in the middle of a bunch of big projects would have been disaster. But over the last few years I’ve been putting more and more of my data “in the cloud,” that is: with software services that store it for me.
Email in the Cloud
I used to be a die-hard Thunderbird fan. This is Firefox’s cousin, a great email client. I would take such great care transferring years of emails every time I switched machines and I spent hours building huge nested list of folders to organize archived messages. About a year ago Thunderbird ate about three months of recent messages, some quite crucial. At that time I started using Google’s Gmail as backup. I set Gmail to pick up mail on my POP server and leave it there without deleting it. I set Thunderbird to leave it there for week. The result was that both messages would be picked up by both services.
After becoming familiar with Gmail I started using it more and more. I love that it doesn’t have folders: you simple put all emails into a single “Archive” and let Google’s search function find them when you need them.You can set up filters, which act as saved searches, and I have these set up for active clients.
Why I’m happy now: I can log into Gmail from any machine anywhere. No recent emails are lost on my old machine.
Project Management in the Cloud
I use the fabulous Remember the Milk (RTM) to keep track of projects and critical to-do items. Like Gmail I can access it from any computer. While messing around setting up backup computers has set me back about ten days, I still know what I need to do and when I need to do it. I can review it and give clients renewed timelines.
An additional advantage to using Remember the Milk and Gmail together is the ability to link to emails. Every email in Gmail gets its own URL and every saved “filter” search gets its own URL. If there’s an email I want to act on in two weeks, I set up a Remember the Mail task. Each task has a optional field for URLs so I put the the email’s Gmail URL in there and archive the email so I don’t have to think about it (part of the Getting Things Done strategy). Two weeks later RTM tells me it’s time to act on that email and I follow the link directly there, do whatever action I need to do and mark it complete in RTM.
Project Notes in the Cloud
I long ago started keeping notes for individual projects in the most excellent Backpack service. You can store notes, emails, pictures and just about anything in Backpack and have it available from any computer. You can easily share notes with others, a feature I frequently use to create client cheatsheets for using the sites I’ve built. Now that I use Gmail and it’s URL feature, I put a link to the client’s Gmail history right on top of each page. Very cool!
Another life saver is that I splurge for the upgraded account that gives me secure server access and I keep my password lists in Backpack. There’s a slight security risk but it’s probably smaller than keeping it on a laptop that could be swiped out of my bag. And right now I can log into all of my services from a new machine.
Keeping the Money Flowing from Clouds
The latest Web 2.0 love of my life is Freshbooks, a service that keeps track of your clients, your hours and puts together great invoices you can mail to them. I’m so much more professional because of them (no more hand written invoices in Word!) and when it’s billing time I can quickly see how many unbilled hours I’ve worked on each project and bang!-bang!-band! send the invoices right out. Because the data is online, I was able to bill a client despite the dead computer, providing my exact hours, a detailed list of what I had done, etc.
Calendar: I always go back and forth between loving Google Calendar and the calendar built into Backpack. Because I can never make up my mind I’ve used ICal feeds to cross-link them so they’re both synced to one another. I can now use whichever is most convenient (or whichever I’m more in the mood to use!) to add and review entries.
Photos: Most of the photos I’ve taken over the past four years are still sitting on my dead laptop waiting for me to find a way to get them off of the hard drive. As tragic as it would be to loose them, 903 of my favorite photos are stored on my Flickr account. And because I emailed most of them to Flickr via Gmail most of those are also stored on Gmail. I will do everything I can to get those lost photos but the worst case scenario is that I will be stuck with “only” those 900.
I’d love to hear how others are using “the cloud” as real-time backup.