No PC is an island, but they can be hard to reach when you're away from them, usually when you need access to some important file or want to invite some friends to see some new photos you just put there.
Today, many people use a wide range of Web sites, including Shutterfly, Flickr and Facebook to share photos, or YouTube or Vimeo to share videos. And there are services such as Microsoft's SkyDrive that let you share a limited number of files on a Microsoft server for free.
But all these Web sites have one thing in common: a time-consuming upload process where information is transferred from your PC to a server far away. It's no big deal to wait for a photo or two to transfer to Facebook, but it can take an hour or more to send a high-definition video to YouTube.
Devices Let Your Hard Drive Act as Server
Two recent products get around the upload problem by letting your hard drive act as the server -- one is a device while the another is software.
PogoPlug is a $99 white brick that you plug in to your broadband router, the device that typically bridges your cable modem or DSL adapter with your home PCs. It may look like an oversized wall wart, but it is actually a full-fledged PC running the Linux operating system now found in many electronics products.
Opera Unite is a feature of the latest version of a free Web browser called Opera, which is available for Windows, Mac OS and PCs running Linux.
Opera is not as popular as Internet Explorer or Firefox, but Opera software has found success creating an excellent browser for a wide range of mobile phones and has greatly expanded the role of the browser on the desktop.
While it is still not finished, Opera Unite turns the browser on its ear, allowing you to serve information to other Internet users instead of just pulling it down. The software supports a range of collaborative features, including file sharing, photo sharing and even a digital "fridge" where you can leave messages for each other. Better yet, other programmers can create new features that expand the functionality of Opera Unite.
Devices Not as Fast as a Dedicated Server
The idea of turning your PC into a Web server has been around for more than a decade, but Opera makes using the features pretty simple if you are used to its user interface. The catch is that, as with other such programs that have appeared through the years, your PC has to stay on (and have Opera running) for the sharing to work, and leaving PCs on all the time has become somewhat of a green taboo in this environmentally conscious age.
While the PogoPlug must be on to be available as well, it consumes much less power than most PCs and got along better with my networking equipment than Opera Unite did. The trick to PogoPlug is getting your files onto it. The company has created free software to make your PogoPlug drive look like a hard drive attached to your Mac or PC, but you must revert to its blunt Web interface in order to specify who you're sharing with. At least the user experience for the person having the files sent is simple.
Neither Opera Unite nor PogoPlug is likely to be as fast as a dedicated server that uses special techniques to optimize its speed, but home broadband speeds for sending information to the Internet from your home continue to improve. While it may lack airtight security and flexibility in terms of who gets to see and download what, PogoPlug is a convenient and reliable option for those who want to simply share personal files with a limited audience over the Internet.