Writing in the cloud (part 2)

A week might be a long time in politics but a nanosecond is its equivalent in computing. We last looked at cloud computing some time ago and things have changed radically since then – both in the technology we’re all using, and the services on offer. Despite these advances, however, cloud computing is still very nascent and the dust has far from settled. Here we look at the best available right now. We will come back to this topic again in future.

What is it?

It has the ring of an impenetrable industry buzzword but in fact cloud computing is very simple. It’s about working online. Rather than saving your documents to your own computer, you save them “to the cloud.” It’s like you’ve a personal hard disk on the Internet.

As well as storing files online, you might also use applications that run in the cloud. Usually these are accessed through a web browser and don’t install to your PC. Examples include the Google Docs word processor (http://docs.google.com).

The benefit of cloud computing is that you’re no longer tied to the office PC. Now you can work on your documents using an iPad or even a mobile phone in the coffee shop, for example, or via a public computer at the library – and all without the need to transfer files before hand, or carry around a USB memory stick. Put simply, with cloud computing your work is instantly available everywhere there’s an Internet connection.

Google Docs was the clear winner for most writers when we last looked at cloud computing and it remains a powerful tool. However, Microsoft has since pulled up its boots in a way that only it can and its Office and OneDrive combination of products now wins our recommendation – although notably OneDrive doesn’t work on the older Windows XP operating system.

There are two items of software you’ll need on each of the computing devices you use to write. Both are free for basic use. The first is Microsoft OneDrive, which you’ll need to install on your PC/Mac, tablet and phone (if you’ve recently invested in a Windows 8 computer you may already be familiar with it because it comes pre-installed). On tablets and phones you’ll find OneDrive in the app store, while you can download it for PCs/Macs at https://onedrive.live.com/about/en-us/download/. When installed on a computer OneDrive creates a magical folder that automatically syncs to and fro with the cloud whatever you put in it. When working on your PC you should save your documents there (I’ll explain how in a moment). On a tablet or phone OneDrive is available as an app from which you can opt to email files, or send them to other apps on your device, although apps like word processors usually connect to the OneDrive system directly in order to save work (again, I’ll explain how in a moment).

The second component required is a word processor. You’ll already have one of these on your PC, of course, and pretty much any will do but on tablets and phones you’ll need the Microsoft Word app. This is again available free for the Apple iPad and iPhone via the App Store, and via Google Play Store for tablets and phones running Android. You’re limited to basic editing in the free Word app but this is as much as most writers need.

On account

You’ll need a free-of-charge Microsoft Live account to access all the goodies mentioned above. If you’re using Windows 8 or later then you’ll probably already have one because you might be using it to login to your PC. The same is true if you’re an Xbox games console player, or if you’re a Skype user, or have a MSN/Hotmail/Outlook.com/Live.com email address.

onedrive

If none of these apply, head over to https://signup.live.com and sign-up. It’s free.

While the free combination of OneDrive + Word mobile app + PC word processor of your choice is perfectly useful for most writers, paying-up to subscribe to Office 365 (www.microsoftstore.com/UK/Office-365) gets you the full Microsoft Office software for up to five computers or mobile devices in your household, and is purchased via monthly or yearly fees – £7.99 for the latter, or £79 in a lump sum for the former. Your OneDrive storage will be boosted to 1TB, which is ideal for backup of virtually all your computer’s data, and you also get sixty minutes of free Skype phone calls each month to virtually every nation in the world. Therefore, a subscription is certainly worth considering writing off against your tax bill.

You may need to pay up depending on the working practices of publishers or editors you work with. Microsoft hobbles the free versions of OneDrive and the Word mobile app so they’re unable to edit files stored in OneDrive for Business, or that are stored on SharePoint servers – both of which are sometimes found in business environments. However, most publishing professionals I’ve worked with share files via the industry-standard “email tennis” method – you email them your copy as a Word document, they email it back with edits, you return the file with your edits, and so on. There’s no need to subscribe in this case.

Working setup

It’s best to work using the Word app on your tablet or phone but on your PC or Mac it’s a different matter. Here whatever you’re already using will likely be good enough, such as LibreOffice (http://libreoffice.org), or new/old versions of Microsoft Office. The only requirement is the ability to read and write Microsoft Word .docx files, which is a virtually universal feature nowadays. With non-Microsoft software like LibreOffice you may need to switch to the Word 2007/2010/2013 file format in the Tools -> Options dialog box (look under the Load/Save -> General heading and the Always Save As dropdown list), and also convert older files to .docx by opening them and saving them out again in Word format.

On an everyday basis all you need do is remember to do is save your files in the OneDrive folder so they’re accessible in the cloud. Most word processors make this easy by letting you define OneDrive as a default location to save files. With Word 2010 you can click File -> Options (at the left), then select the Save heading and click the Browse button alongside the Default File Location box at the right. Then select the OneDrive folder, which will be shown as an icon at the left of the file browser window.

You’ll also need to move existing work documents to your OneDrive folder, and it’s best to move the files rather than copy them to avoid any confusion as to which versions are current.

Editing files

When working on a PC there’s no need to change your existing working practices, except for one thing – you must remember to save and close documents when you’ve finished working on them. For some this advice will be eggs for proverbial grandmothers, but if you’re somebody who leaves 1,000 documents open in the background then you’ll need to change your ways. Why? Because if you don’t save your work then it won’t sync with the cloud. Subsequent edits you do elsewhere, such as on your iPad, will then mean a duplicate of the document is automatically created to avoid destroying your earlier edits on the PC. Put simply, things go out of sync – and that’s bad. You’ll be left with two documents that you’ll need to manually merge into one, which is messy, time consuming and confusing.

Beyond the first time you save in Word on a tablet or phone, there’s no need to remember to keep saving because it’s handled automatically as you work – additions or edits are saved every few seconds to the cloud as a continual updating process. However, you should still save your document to OneDrive upon creating it – to do so, tap the back button at the top left to return to the file listing, then you’ll be prompted to give the file a name. And again, one you’ve finished working on a file it’s best to close the file by returning to the file listing by tapping the back button at the top left of the screen.

Let’s take a look at cloud syncing in action. Open Word on your tablet or phone, then create and save a document in OneDrive. Start writing something. Open the OneDrive folder on your PC or Mac and look closely at the file icons. They’ll have one of two small icons appended to them – a green tick, which indicates the file is synced in the cloud, or blue arrows, which means syncing is in progress.  You’ll see the blue arrows whenever you save a file to OneDrive, or whenever it’s being altered on another device. Again, avoid opening a file that you know to be open elsewhere.

Web editing

You can also edit your files using the Word cloud app, which is accessed via a web browser. Just visit http://onedrive.live.com, and login. Then click your file to open it.

Working via the web app is ideal if you’re using a computer or device that isn’t your own, such as one in a library, although be sure to logout when you’ve finished.

Editing on the web again means work is automatically saved, but there’s a big difference that it’s worth knowing: you can edit a file on the web simultaneous to it being edited in the Word app on your tablet (but not while it’s being edited on a PC or Mac!).

Despite this, however, it’s still possible to come-up against version clashes. Remember that cloud technology is still young and overcoming technical hurdles. My advice is to save and close the document when you’ve finished with it regardless of where you’re working – PC, Word app on a mobile device, or via the Word web app. Before you shutdown your PC when working on a file

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