The idea of the paperless office was huge in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s with the advent of the personal computer. Unfortunately, paper never even came close to going away, but in fact it’s now easier than ever to use less paper, thanks to smartphones and tablets, improved camera technology, better scanners and scanning software, and cloud storage.1
Going paperless is a huge topic that means different things to different people depending on their needs. Where documents should be stored, how they will be formatted, named and organized, how access is controlled appropriately, and how easily they can be searched and located are considerations that can easily cause endless hours of debate and despair. Without some careful planning, a digital document system can easily become as disorganized and cumbersome as the paper system it’s intended to supplement or replace.
The good news is, if you have an iOS device and access to one or more of the most popular cloud storage services, you can start dipping your toes into the pool of paperlessness with very little effort and stress, and worry about the bigger picture later. There’s nothing better than a little experimentation and practice to help you start understanding what your own needs are.2
This post is about file storage using cloud services. The next post will be about iOS scanner apps. If you’re in a corporate environment, you can probably skip the rest of this article, because it’s not going to be up to you where you can store your company documents, and it probably won’t be on any of the services I talk about here. If you’re looking for solutions for personal or family use, or you’re in a small business that does allow one or more of the following cloud storage providers, the following may apply to you.
There are basically three kinds of cloud storage services (excluding online backup solutions): cloud drives which act like another folder on your computer, cloud drives for sharing documents directly between apps, and note and document archiving services. Since this is undoubtedly as clear as mud, let me give three examples:
Dropbox is a popular cloud drive that acts like any other folder-based document storage system. It can be accessed on your computer as just another folder, or on your iOS device through the Dropbox app. Additionally, many other third-party apps on iOS connect to Dropbox to allow saving documents there directly from those apps.
Other equivalent cloud drive services include Google Drive, Box, OneDrive, and various WebDAV drives. Dropbox is just the example of this type of cloud service that I chose because it’s one I personally use.
For iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite, Apple has added a cloud storage option called iCloud Drive. The name makes it sound like a Dropbox clone, and in fact you can access it directly on the Mac or PC the same way you can Dropbox or Google Drive, but it actually works slightly differently, especially from iOS.3
The way Apple describes iCloud Drive on its web site makes it sound a lot like Dropbox, and when used from a computer, it sort of is. Where it really differs is when using it from iOS. On iOS, there is no direct interface to iCloud Drive. Rather, you save and access files on it through iCloud Drive enabled apps. iOS apps create their own individual folders on iCloud Drive for putting their files in. In this way, iOS apps know which documents are theirs.
iOS apps can access documents created in other apps, provided the app maker has chosen to show iCloud Drive folders outside the one for their own app.
As an example, I wrote part of this article on my iPhone using Byword for iOS. Byword allows saving files to iCloud, as well as opening documents from other apps that are stored in iCloud Drive. If I decide to open another app’s document, I can just go into that app’s folder in iCloud Drive and select it.
The fact that iOS apps automatically generate their own app folders is why iCloud Drive works a little differently on your computer than something like Dropbox; you have to respect the app folder structure or the system gets messed up.
Evernote is a note-based archive service. Everything that is in Evernote is in a note. Want to save an audio file to Evernote? Great! You can; I do it all the time. But it’s going to be inside a note.
This is great for things like archiving podcast episodes: drop the audio file in, make the title of the note be the title of the podcast, add the episode show notes to the note below the audio file, tag the note with appropriate tags like “audio”, “podcast”, and “episode”, and you have the podcast episode safely archived complete with all the metadata you could ever want.
If, however, you just want an audio file all by itself, sitting in a folder on a drive and easily accessible from apps not named Evernote, this note-based approach isn’t what you want for that file.
Personally, I use Evernote as a digital filing cabinet. It holds just about anything and everything. I save articles from the web to Evernote, I use it for receipts, podcast notes, episodes of other people’s podcasts that I want to be able to refer to later, notes and images for things I’m writing, and more. I even store software and hardware manuals and PDFs of e-books I’ve purchased in Evernote. Evernote Premium will provide OCR for text found in images and PDFs as well, which makes searching scanned documents and photos very easy.
Each of these three types of cloud storage services have their unique uses, and I do use all three. I use Dropbox for storing random stuff that I either need to share with others easily or get at individual files myself; I use iCloud Drive for iOS and Mac apps that have iCloud Drive capability so that I can get at the documents from other apps and devices; and I use Evernote for filing away tons of different kinds of data that I want to have permanently filed in an organized manner that is eminently searchable.
At this point, you may be annoyed, irritated, upset, or all of the above, that I’m making major assumptions about where your digitized documents will be stored (namely, in a cloud service). The reason I’m making that assumption is that the next part of Less Paper will be about using iOS apps for scanning in documents. It is certainly possible to use an iPhone or iPad as a scanner on which the documents are stored locally, but it’s of questionable use to do so. If you only own an iPhone, let’s say, and no computer and no other iOS devices, and if you also have plenty of free storage space on your iPhone that you don’t plan to use for anything else, that might work. Most people probably need to be able to get at their documents from more than one device.
Two more considerations that have to be mentioned when assuming cloud storage are availability and security.
Obviously if the cloud goes down, it’s not useful to you at all. You need to understand how your cloud service of choice works. Does it provide local copies of your documents that it syncs to the cloud, or does it download them every time you need them? Evernote, for example, stores them on the cloud only without local copies until you open them unless you specifically mark a notebook as an offline notebook so that copies of the documents within are always saved locally. Dropbox and iCloud drive will sync files.
However, on iOS it’s more complicated, even with services that sync documents and keep local copies. Typically apps that connect to Dropbox have to query it to get a list of files, and the same goes for opening files from iCloud Drive unless you’ve already been working on a document that is saved in iCloud Drive and have it locally.
As far as security and documents in the cloud goes, that could fill a book of its own. You can have good security, or you can have convenience; pick one. The fact is that in 2015 it’s pretty evident you are not likely to keep three-letter US government agencies from getting whatever files of yours they want. The question is, what about other hackers?
Dropbox and iCloud Drive both use encryption to transmit and store your data. Dropbox has access to the encryption keys used for file storage; Apple’s iCloud security policy simply says they do not provide encryption keys to third parties.
Evernote doesn’t encrypt the contents of your notes as they are stored. It does encrypt them during transmission. Because Evernote is the best “filing cabinet” of these three services, it’s the one I personally have spent the most time thinking about my comfort levels with what types of information I store in it. It is massively convenient to use for all kinds of data that you probably shouldn’t put in the cloud unencrypted.4 That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t carefully consider what you put in Dropbox either.
Of the three services, based on the security information published by each, I’m most comfortable with iCloud Drive’s security compared to that of Dropbox or Evernote. I still use all three of them, because they each meet different needs.
In the next part of Less Paper, I’ll talk about digitizing documents with iOS scanner apps. This is an area where change and progress are constant; the app I would have easily qualified as my favorite iOS scanner app a year ago isn’t even a contender today.
The two apps I recommend and will be detailing are Scanbot and Evernote Scannable. Like the different cloud services I wrote about in this article, both of those scanning apps have strengths, weaknesses, and best use cases. They also both happen to make me very happy. It’s not unusual for me to find excuses to scan stuff just so I can play with one or both of them, which is a sign of a good iOS app.
- Even if you don’t want to store all your documents in the cloud, which is certainly a reasonable position, it can be useful for the purposes of document transfer – temporary storage, if you will. ↩
- This is a great approach for personal use; obviously for organizational use, requirements and solution options need to be carefully considered upfront. ↩
- For a company that takes great pride in simplifying things for the average person, Apple could not have made iCloud Drive any more confusing, both in terms of explaining what it is, and also in terms of how it was rolled out to the Mac and iOS devices. ↩
- It is possible to encrypt text inside a note using the Evernote desktop client, but you won’t have access to it on iOS, and it won’t encrypt any files embedded in the notes. It’s basically useless. ↩