Google Inc. wants to offer consumers a new way to store their files on its hard drives, in a strategy that could accelerate a shift to Web-based computing and intensify the Internet company’s competition with Microsoft Corp.
Google is preparing a service that would let users store on its computers essentially all of the files they might keep on their personal-computer hard drives — such as word-processing documents, digital music, video clips and images, say people familiar with the matter. The service could let users access their files via the Internet from different computers and mobile devices when they sign on with a password, and share them online with friends. It could be released as early as a few months from now, one of the people said.
The Mountain View, Calif., company plans to provide some free storage, with additional storage allotments available for a fee, say the people familiar with the matter. Planned pricing isn’t known.
A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on any specific online storage plans beyond what it already offers as part of its email and other services. But she said in a statement that “storage is an important component of making Web [applications] fit easily into consumers’ and business users’ lives.”
Google’s push underlines a shift in how businesses and consumers approach computing. They are increasingly using the Web to access applications and files stored in massive computer data centers operated by tech companies such as Salesforce.com Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Google. Such arrangements, made possible by high-speed Internet connections between homes, offices and data centers, aim to ease users’ technology headaches and, in some cases, cut their costs.
Other companies offer various Internet-based file storage services, but most have been slow to catch on with businesses and consumers. Some offerings, such as Yahoo Inc.’s Briefcase Web-based storage service, require users to go to a Web page and click through a few screens to upload a new file and set various limits. Other more sophisticated services have remained niche products.
Google’s market power and focus on providing easy-to-use services heighten its chances of having an impact. Google is hoping to distinguish itself from existing online storage services partly by simplifying the process for transferring and opening files. Along with a Web-based interface, Google is trying to let users upload and access files directly from their PC desktops and have the file storage behave for consumers more like another hard drive that is handy at all times, say the people familiar with the matter.
Google faces hurdles on issues such as data privacy, copyright, the economics of adding storage capacity and the technical challenges of offering service without interruption. It is still possible that new developments could lead Google to shift tack or shelve plans for the storage offering in the coming months.
The effort — at one point known internally at Google as “My Stuff” — could add to the challenges facing Microsoft’s core Windows operating system and Office productivity software businesses by speeding a shift toward Web-based computing. It also has the potential to affect the economics and usage of home computers, lessening consumers’ need to buy big hard drives to store and back up all of their files, for example.
One limitation of such an Internet-based storage service is that it isn’t accessible when a person’s computer or phone is offline, such as when one is in an airplane, though he could still copy required files to the laptop or other device before disconnecting from the Internet.
For Google, one advantage of offering a broad data-storage service would be to potentially draw consumers to existing Google services that compete with Microsoft’s Office applications suite, which includes Word, Outlook and Excel.
Google already effectively offers storage for consumers’ files through Web applications such as its Docs word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications and its Gmail email. Users can upload photos to its Picasa Web Albums photo-hosting service, which provides one gigabyte of free storage. They can purchase from 10 gigabytes to 400 gigabytes additional storage for $20 to $500 per year. This storage can be shared by users’ Gmail and Picasa accounts and soon with files for Docs.
Google is hoping the new storage service will help tie together some of its other services through a single search box, says one of the people familiar with the matter. So a user might be able to conduct a single search by keywords to find his own privately stored files, regardless of whether they’re accessed through Picasa, Docs or a software program running on the user’s computer.
Microsoft Corporate Vice President Chris Capossela says the company believes users want both software on their computers and Internet-based services. He said a class of consumers doesn’t trust such Web-based storage options, and that Google wouldn’t be able to use storage to steer users to its other services if those services aren’t great to begin with. “We’ve spent so much time and energy understanding how to give customers the utmost assurance of their privacy,” Mr. Capossela said.
For its part, Microsoft offers a test version of a service called Windows Live SkyDrive with one gigabyte of free storage.
It is unclear whether Google plans to display ads as part of the storage service. If it chose to include ads based on the contents of users’ files — as it does with users’ Gmail email messages — that would likely raise red flags for privacy groups and some consumers.
Many businesses have their own policies about storing data online. Consumers can also enjoy a lesser level of legal protection for the privacy of their data when it is on Internet-based file storage services as opposed to just on their own computers, according to Kevin Bankston, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Google says it is aware of privacy concerns. “It is certainly approached with the utmost sensitivity on our end,” said the Google spokeswoman. “We have extensive safeguards in place currently to protect our user data and we have a very strong track record in this regard.”
In addition, Google will likely have to address copyright issues. Allowing consumers to share different types of files such as music with other users could trigger the sort of copyright complaints the company already faces over videos on its YouTube video sharing site. One person familiar with the matter says Google is discussing with copyright holders how to approach the issue and has some preliminary solutions.
The company has been tackling technical issues including how to get the storage service to work seamlessly with software on users’ computers so it appears like just another hard drive, say the people familiar with the matter.
A document Google inadvertently released on the Web in March 2006 said it was moving toward being able to “store 100% of user data,” citing “emails, Web history, pictures, bookmarks” as a few examples. The document referred to what appeared to be unannounced Google initiatives, including one dubbed “GDrive” and said they could help compete with Microsoft.