The Cloud Storage Conundrum

The Cloud Storage Conundrum

To ensure that your data and precious thousands of photos are safely backed up from your smartphone, you have two choices, and neither are good. You could manually sync your device with your computer. Or you could buy cloud storage.

But once you buy 50GB of space for your photos from Apple for 79p per month, you’re locked in to the cloud storage conundrum: you doom yourself to pay forever.

Cloud backups through iCloud, full quality image upload to Google Photos, and premium services like Backblaze are effortless and silent. Viewing your photos anywhere at any time saves worry about syncing and saves stress if you break or lose your phone. These services provide the glorious duality we all need from our technology: safety and convenience.

The prices start cheap, 79p a month is insignificant for enough for most people today. But file sizes are increasing with the quality of our cameras. And the better our cameras the more we record and naturally with time, our libraries bulge.

So months down the line — because your iPhone is filling up from hungry apps like Instagram and Facebook unnecessarily holding hundreds of megabytes hostage — you upgrade. To just £2.50 a month for 200GB. Bargain.

But your iPhone takes 4K video at 60fps. That’s 400MB per minute of footage. 8K is round the corner.

You don’t need the 2TB upgrade yet, but your future self craves being able to scroll years back into your memories. As we get older we want to save more, as we have kids, move house, move jobs. Our photo library booms. By the time we are in our old age, photos will be lifelike and file sizes gigantic by today’s standards. I wouldn’t be surprised if over the course of my life I take over a million.

With each passing year you will have been doomed to buy more safety and convenience. Your monthly bill will increase, and increase. Storage sizes come down at a similar rate as file sizes go up.

You’re trapped. Because one day a few years ago you thought: 79p a month, that’s not even a cup of coffee!

Apple are not generous with their free iCloud storage. Nearly a decade after it launched, each user still receives only 5GB. Each user, not each device. You can spend £1000 on an iPhone, £800 on an iPad, £2000 on a mac and £25 per month on Music, TV, Arcade and News and still not have enough storage to back up just two of those devices.

We should not have to pay for safety and convenience, we should have to pay for luxury. Google follow this mantra more closely.

Google give free unlimited photo storage but users have to pay to upload at full quality. I worry I will look back on these compressed images from the cameras of the future and they will be disappointing. This is the reason I record all video in the maximum quality my phone will allow: for the benefit of my future self.

While innovation in cloud storage is stagnating now services are fast and reliable, and while most people don’t need more than the cheaper tiers, perhaps there is a technical reason too. There is only so much storage in the world, and what happens if we fill it up?

In 2025 we will create 163 zettabytes of data. That’s 59 million copies of Netflix’s full international library from 2013 or 15 billion duplicates of Wikipedia. It’s ten times as much data as was created in 2017. With 20% of total data in the world being critical to the continuity of our lives, we need storage space.

That current growth, however means that if we stored one byte on every single atom we would still run out of storage space in less than 180 years.

If Apple and Google were to suddenly provide large amounts of free cloud storage for backups and full quality photo libraries to all their customers, would they risk the safety of future generations? At the rate of technological advancement today, probably not, but Apple are already investing $10 billion in data centres over the next five years to keep up.

Google has 2.5 million servers too. But they charge a significant premium for their higher tiers of cloud storage, perhaps because enterprises will spend more, or perhaps because they want to reserve storage for the highest number of people. On a 200GB plan, they charge 12p per gigabyte per year. Their 2TB option is more economical at 4p, but if you want 10TB, you’re back to 10p. That’s £79.99 per month.

We do not have an immediate data scarcity problem, but the cloud storage business model needs to evolve to allow us to keep our data in sync even when our personal libraries grow unwieldy. Ultimately, consumers should not have to worry about being trapped in a cycle of upgrading their cloud storage accounts, just like they shouldn’t have to worry about the safety of their photos.

Today, if I take a few hundred videos, I will fill my iCloud storage. I have two options: pay up or have my personal data deleted. It shouldn’t have to be this way.

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