Google Drive accelerates shift to cloud computing

Google Drive isn’t really about storage, it’s about getting you to do everything online.

With Google Drive, CEO Larry Page is taking on Microsoft Office (Eric Risberg/AP Photo/Canadian Press)

Google Drive, the company’s solution to storing files online, has been rumoured for so long that Google itself compared it to the Loch Ness monster when announcing its release. But if, after years of waiting, we expected grand things, what we got felt underwhelming, with little to differentiate it from market leader Dropbox.

However, users of Drive quickly discovered a significant quirk. In addition to the functionality you’d expect—having, say, a spreadsheet you save to your Drive folder at work automatically appear on your laptop at home—any file you create in Google Docs, the company’s online office suite, is also saved to Drive. Though these files appear to exist on your own computer, you can actually only access them through a web browser. And that seemingly tiny detail suggests that Drive isn’t so much a competitor to Dropbox but a preparatory step in Google’s plan to move all our computing online.

Other cloud storage options are basically akin to warehouses: places to keep stuff safe when you’re not using it. Drive can do that, but it also lets you work with those files online, in the cloud. Click on that spreadsheet in your Drive folder, and whether or not you have the right software on your own computer, it simply opens up on the web. In this way, the service helps collapse the barrier between the stuff on our machines and what we keep online, treating them as essentially one and the same.

Google’s attempt to move us from desktop to cloud computing really started with ChromeOS, but that web-only operating system wasn’t a success, in part because the lack of a storage backbone proved too strange and cumbersome for consumers.

Drive promises to solve that. By emphasizing the relationship between storing and working in the cloud, it lays the groundwork for moving all our applications and data online. Rather than simply a warehouse, Drive will form part of a product suite that can effectively make Google your online home: a place where you do things with your files, rather than merely store them.

For Google, the purpose of this push is the same as for all its products: to tie you further into its ecosystem. The more information Google has about your habits and preferences, the better it can target you with ads. But more important, by building out the infrastructure for cloud computing, Google is spearheading a future when using software stored on a computer will seem as archaic as twenties stuffed under a mattress.

As such, Drive isn’t just a competitor to Dropbox—the target is actually Microsoft and its Windows and Office universe. Microsoft’s cloud storage service, SkyDrive, reveals that company’s bias: even files created online open in Microsoft’s desktop Office applications. It’s a contrast in focus: Microsoft wants you to keep using the software you bought from it; Google just wants you in the cloud.

Naturally, whether Google can convince us to move our computing lives online remains uncertain. What is sure is that Google isn’t aiming at just a new version of storage, but a radically new model of computing itself.

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based blogger and technology critic.