Wade Roush

I’m a little obsessive when it comes to backups. In my Windows days, in the early 2000s, I used to make complete CD-ROM copies of my PC’s hard drive every couple of months. Until last year, I had two separate online backup services running on my Macbook Pro—Carbonite and Backblaze—along with an external hard drive as the target for Apple’s own Time Machine backup program. (I eventually dropped Carbonite, figuring I didn’t really need four copies of everything.) If there were a service for backing up my brain, I’d probably use that too.

But as compulsive as my backup routine is, it’s clear that I’m only winning half of the battle.

The thing is, more and more of the data I really care about doesn’t live on my computer, but on my mobile devices, where Backblaze and Time Machine can’t reach. I’m talking about personal photos, videos, sound files, text documents, and other stuff that I wouldn’t want to lose if one of my devices got stolen, or forgotten in a taxi. (My own mobile menagerie consists of an iPhone and an iPad, but someone with an Android phone or a Surface tablet would be in the same boat.)

Some of the stuff on my mobile devices is backed up on Apple’s iCloud service. But not all of it: Apple caps my storage at 55 gigabytes. I have to pay $100 a year for the privilege. And it’s surprisingly difficult to retrieve the material I put on iCloud, especially from a non-Apple device.

It all feels like a big, expensive mess. In a world where many people have multiple devices, often of different brands, what’s really needed is a single, affordable backup service that works with any phone, tablet, or computer.

That’s exactly what Pogoplug is designed to be. I’m not yet a customer of the service, but I’ve visited Cloud Engines, the San Francisco startup that offers it, and I’ve gotten a glimpse of what president and CEO Daniel Putterman calls “Backup 2.0.” It’s a mindset that says your data shouldn’t be siloed according to which device you used to create it, or which megacorporate ecosystem—Apple, Google, Microsoft, or Amazon—your devices happen to be connected to.

“There is a new wave of backup emerging, and it’s a lot more about protecting all of your devices and being able to easily move content between them,” Putterman says.

For $5 per month or $50 per year, Pogoplug offers unlimited online file backup for all of your Windows and Mac computers and all of your iOS and Android mobile devices. Once your files are stored in Pogoplug’s cloud data centers, you can access them from any Web browser, or from an app on your mobile device. You can also stream your videos, listen to your music, or browse your photos from the Pogoplug cloud without re-downloading them to your device, and you can share the content with friends and family members through secure, private links.

If that all sounds too good to be true, it’s partly because the cost of storage has been plummeting so swiftly over the past few years. The truth is that many paid cloud storage service these days, including Carbonite and Backblaze, offer unlimited storage. Cloud Engines is taking advantage of the same trends. “Our infrastructure costs are so low that we don’t need to burden the user with storage limits or service tiers,” Putterman says. “We have one user who’s using over 60 terabytes of our storage, and we’re very happy with that user.”

A terabyte is 1,024 gigabytes; that customer’s 60 terabytes is roughly equivalent to the flash memory capacity of 120 high-end MacBook Pros. In other words, it’s a lot. But part of Putterman’s philosophy is that consumers don’t know and don’t care about storage capacity, and shouldn’t have to. “Ten gigabytes or 100 gigabytes is meaningless to people,” he says. So the smart strategy is to make it a non-issue.

Once you’ve installed Pogoplug’s software on your computer, you decide which folders you want to back up to the cloud. After that, every change you make to that folder—every file you add or delete and every file you revise—gets copied over to Cloud Engine’s data center. In that sense, it’s just like the existing online backup services.

Pogoplug’s cloud appliance (box at right)

But is Pogoplug a real replacement for Mozy, Backblaze, or Carbonite? No and yes. You can set those more traditional services to back up all the data on your laptop or desktop computer, including your system files and applications. The idea is to make it possible to restore your whole setup if your computer gets stolen, destroyed, or erased. That’s not the purpose of Pogoplug. But Putterman points out that as Apple and Microsoft have built out their own cloud ecosystems, replacing shrink-wrapped software with app-store downloads and subscriptions, there’s less reason to keep a personal backup copy of every system file and app.

“For the more traditional PC vendors, there is a lot of emphasis on disaster recovery, but moving forward, if you are on a Mac or even a Windows machine, you can get your apps back,” he says. “It’s really my personal content—archived photos, tax forms from five years ago—that is precious to me.”

Cloud Engines , which has raised $33 million from investors such as Foundry Group, Softbank Capital, and Morgan Stanley, doesn’t share data on the size of Pogoplug’s user base. But Putterman says the company had “millions” of users and over 300 petabytes of data under management even before it switched from an appliance-based business to a pure cloud storage model a couple of years ago. Now that it has partnerships with companies like Sprint and Best Buy to offer bundled backup services to device purchasers, the company has access to a potential user base of more than 200 million people, Putterman says.

Though Pogoplug is its main product, Cloud Engines still offers a couple of devices that Putterman describes as “cloud storage accessories.” One is a $50 appliance the company simply calls Pogoplug. It attaches to a wireless router and an external hard drive and lets users set up a fast, private cloud in their home or office as a a shortcut to backup nirvana. Whereas the regular Pogoplug service takes a little while, working at the speed of your home Internet connection, to copy entire folders or photo libraries to the cloud, the appliance quickly sucks up all your photos, videos, and other data , then gradually copies the information over to Cloud Engines’ data center. “It’s a very fast way of getting things off your computers or devices onto a secure location,” Putterman says. “It’s an acceleration tool.”

The other Cloud Engines gadget is another $50 box called Safeplug. It uses the Tor network to disguise your IP address when you browse the Web, in case you’re worried that hackers (or intelligence agencies) might get hold of your identity or your physical location. It’s not too hard to install Tor directly on your computer, but Safeplug removes the hassle, throwing off whomever might be watching by routing your Internet requests through a random series of servers around the world.

These days, we’re immersed in cloud services. Whether you realize it or not, you’re using the cloud every time you share a file on Dropbox, stream a video on Netflix, or snap a picture on your smartphone. Pogoplug’s future customers, in Putterman’s view, are people who’ve gotten used to the idea of the cloud via these free or mostly-free services, and are now realizing it only costs a little extra to get what he calls “whole-ecosystem” protection.

“There are more mobile devices than human beings on the planet at this point,” Putterman says. “We think there are a lot of people who want cross-platform access to their data.”

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