ownCloud - a different kind of file-sync service

With the emergence of Google Drive, Microsoft Skydrive and other Dropbox-like services, the synchronization-service products seem to have, at best, tiny differences: some exclusive app access, different APIs, different ecosystems, compatibility... all these seem to be minor one-ups on other services, definitely important for some, but not massive innovations in the space. Nothing that really makes you gape.

Enter ownCloud: a different kind of file-sync service.

OwnCloud: the Technology

OwnCloud isn't just a service in the typical fashion. There isn't one website, owned by one company, that offers the service exclusively. It's a server-side technology that's free and open-source, so you can download it for personal use on a home server or a private server, such as a VPS, giving you the option of complete control over your data.

There are also several ownCloud-based services, that offer pretty typical packages - http://owncube.com, https://getfreecloud.com/ and others, with free options and with more storage available for purchase.

Browser Interface

The first, most noticeable advantage of ownCloud over other offerings is just how much functionality the browser interface provides. It comes with a photo gallery feature, which lets you browse through all the photo albums in your drive; a music player, which searches through your music and lets you stream it from the browser; and finally, contacts, calendar and bookmark management.

The files and folders interface includes the ability to share with other local ownCloud users, a good feature for someone looking to set up a home server, or to publish files and folders publicly to the web. For those of us that are programmers, it also comes with a fully-featured text-editor, and with version 4.0 it now also comes with a built-in ODF viewer for open document office files.

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The photo gallery app is a clever little app that catagorises all the photos in your drive into albums. By default, every folder with images in it is made into an album - so the folder, "Pictures/Wallpapers" will become an album called, "Pictures.Wallpapers". Albums can be renamed and removed. Clicking on an album opens it, displaying all albums and images inside. Clicking an image opens it in a Lightbox-esque viewer.

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via wstaw.org

The Music app lets you view and browse all the music files on your drive, by artist and album, and listen to them on-the-fly. A nice and simple addition. This continues to play your music, even as you browse to other pages, with small controls appearing on the, "Music" title if you have music playing.

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via wstaw.org

The Contacts app lets you create multiple address books and add contacts/contact details in them. It also lets you import contacts from a VCF (vCard) exported from e.g. GMail, Thunderbird or other contacts applications, making it easy to migrate to.

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Local Access and Syncing

OwnCloud doesn't require you to install any software to access your files from your desktop - it uses the WebDAV protocol for file access, meaning that the three major desktop operating systems can access it out-of-the-box, and WebDAV apps are available for Android. Moreover, because it's built-in to the desktop, you can access your remote files from applications as if they were right on your hard-drive, and (frequently) your applications won't notice the difference. You can copy, save and load files from your ownCloud server just like any other folder, and you can do it on-the-fly without having to download the entire drive. This makes it ideal for netbooks or other devices where hard-drive space is scarce.

For calendar/contacts, you can also access these without downloading a special sync application - they use the CalDAV and CardDAV protocols respectively, for which various plug-ins are available for existing desktop applications.

If you prefer to have a more traditional syncing experience, though, there is an ownCloud desktop sync application available for installation that simply downloads files from your ownCloud server and uploads new files to it.

Between the feature-rich browser interface, the ability to self-host and options for integrating natively into your existing applications, ownCloud easily stands head-and-shoulders above other syncing services. OwnCloud improves on synchronization in every way. If you haven't tried it already, you're missing out.