So you’ve never gotten into the habit of making regular backups? Fortunately, nowadays copies of your e-mails probably rest safely with the likes of Yahoo, your photos with Flickr, your word-processor documents with Google, your music with iTunes, and so on. Whew! These applications reside on massive server farms, surely making your data as secure as they’d be with one of those fancy corporate disaster-recovery services.
But no. Data in the cloud are still vulnerable—in fact, your precious documents are no safer there than they ever were on the noisy, ancient 10-megabyte hard drive of your first PC.
Consider this. Within the past year, Apple discontinued its .Mac Groups and personal home pages, and AOL closed down its AOL Pictures, Xdrive, and BlueString services. Things are even worse over at Yahoo, which terminated Yahoo Briefcase, FareChase, My Web, Yahoo Audio Search, Yahoo Pets, Yahoo Live, Yahoo Kickstart, and Yahoo for Teachers, and will soon shutter the venerable Geocities, a site that was already five years old when Yahoo bought it in 1999.
At least these services folded in an orderly fashion. Linkup, formerly MediaMax, closed its doors in the summer of 2008 with little notice, taking with it hundreds of gigabytes of personal photos and videos. Its customers needed backups, and so do you—even a robust service like Gmail goes off-line from time to time.
In fact, things are in some ways worse than ever. On your own computer, you can just pop in a blank CD and burn a backup of your data. But how do you copy a Web-based inbox?
Google’s answer is Gears, an open-source browser extension that works with most modern Web browsers and can copy data locally for some programs. Unsurprisingly, Gears works best with Gmail, Google Documents, and other Google apps, though a few others, such as Zoho Writer and Zoho Mail, are also ”Gears aware.”
Gears works by keeping a database on your PC and a Web server that lets you access mail, documents, or what have you when you’re off-line. Your initial backup depends greatly on your download speed. While Gears itself doesn’t take much time, even with a connection of more than 10 megabits per second your PC will chug all night on a gigabyte of Gmails.
If you’re using Yahoo Mail or Hotmail, your only real choice is to use a POP (Post Office Protocol)-based e-mail client like the Mozilla Foundation’s Thunderbird to create local copies. If your goal in using a Web-based e-mail service was to keep those thousands of messages from cluttering your hard disk, sorry about that.
Gears also copies photos from Picasa Web Albums, but if your pictures are elsewhere, you’ll need another solution. And what about those painstakingly added descriptions, dates, and place names—your photos’ metadata, as it’s called?