Google finally took the hint. Some six years after word first leaked out of a "GDrive" service, which itself followed clever hacks to use Gmail for online file storage, the Mountain View, Calif., Web giant introduced Google Drive, a Web storage service, on Tuesday.
The strange delay in delivering this cloud-based application allowed many of you to grow accustomed to such competing services as Dropbox, Microsoft's SkyDrive and a great many others. Like those peers, Drive provides gigabytes of free capacity and makes it available in your browser and through desktop and mobile synchronization apps that allow it to function as if it were hard-wired to your computer or phone.
But because Drive essentially spawned from Google Docs — the Google Docs Android app gets renamed to Google Drive after an update — this service comes with extra foibles.
The documents, spreadsheets and presentations you've already created in Google's online productivity suite seem even more accessible when they're in a folder on your desktop (double-clicking them opens your browser into Google Docs).
But you can't work on them without an Internet connection. These ".gdoc," ".gsheet" and ".gslides" files don't open in Windows and Mac programs, and the Google Docs Web apps still lack the offline-editing capability they desperately needed last summer.
This reverses the failing of Apple's iCloud service, which only lets you edit documents in Apple's apps, not on the Web. Microsoft's SkyDrive, however, allows you to revise Microsoft Office files (but not those saved in the popular RTF standard) in both browser apps and desktop software.
In this respect, I can only wish that Google had modeled Drive not after Docs but Gmail, which provides offline access through the e-mail program of your choice, not just in browsers.
(Disclosures: I've spoken at two Google events and collected a speaking fee from the company for one.)
Other developers can write Web apps to work with Google Drive files, which could quickly get interesting. For now, the most fascinating option is optical character recognition of uploaded images. But while this captured most of the text from a theater ticket I scanned in, it doesn't seem to have extracted anything from a photo of a magazine article or screen captures of an old blogging system.
If you only want easily accessible storage for files you'll open in other programs, Drive doesn't have an overwhelming advantage. Its 5 GB of free (and ad-free) storage beats Dropbox's 2 GB quota, but not SkyDrive's 7 GB — or the 25 GB of free space you can claim there if you had an account on April 22.
Those three services, the ones I know best, provide about the same level of access on computers and smartphones. Google offers apps for Windows, Mac OS X and Android (plus an iOS app promised soon); SkyDrive covers Windows, Mac OS X, iOS and Windows Phone 7 (but not Android); Dropbox has software for Windows, Mac and Linux computers as well as Android, BlackBerry and iOS. With all three services, third-party software fills in many of those blanks.
Google Drive is no more secure than the password you choose and the computer you run its sync software on. Like SkyDrive but unlike Dropbox, it doesn't encrypt files stored on its servers; you can use third-party tools like the open-source TrueCrypt to scramble files before uploading, but that's more work.
Google Drive has one last unique feature: It comes from a company that probably knows an enormous amount about you. Do you want to move a little more of your digital life to its servers?
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery