Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dropbox: A free, low-bandwidth solution for online file sharing, syncronization and backup

One of my projects is the book AIDS Is Real and It's In Our Church, which I co-authored. The English version has been quite a success, Hausa and Amharic editions are in print, and now we're working on the French version. One of the technical problems we've dealt with is simply how to share the files between authors and editors on different continents, while being sure that corrections and updates are made to the right file. Once, in the Hausa version, I spent quite a few hours making corrections and then discovered that the file I'd been given was not the latest.

There are many approaches to this issue, which after all is a common one whenever people are collaborating on documents. One of the particular constraints for some of us though, is that the solution has to be low-bandwidth, simple, and free (or at least very low cost). It simply isn't practical to be uploading and downloading a 20 MB file every time it is changed.

I've looked briefly at Google Docs, which works fine and would be my first choice for documents that don't have a lot of formatting requirements. Collaborators work (even simultaneously) on a document in Google's own format, stored in cyberspace somewhere, and that document can be exported when necessary to another format. Documents can be text (with pictures), spreadsheets, or presentations. Google Docs is free, doesn't require any setup, and lets users work online or offline (that is, you can edit documents even while not connected to the Internet, and they will be saved again when you are online).

Google Docs won't do what I need at the moment, though, which is to allow people to edit Microsoft Word and Publisher documents. That is where Dropbox has been a real help. I use it to
  • Share files with co-workers, automatically keeping everyone's copies synchronized
  • Work on files from different computers without having to do anything manually to keep them synchronized
  • Keep online backups of projects I'm actively working on, so that the backup is always current.
Here's how it works:
  1. Download and install the free software (currently a 14 MB file). It creates a special My Dropbox folder on your computer.
  2. Register as a user with the service. You get a 2 GB online folder free, and can pay for more storage.
  3. "Once installed, any file you drop into your Dropbox folder will synchronize and be available on any other computer you've installed Dropbox on, as well as from the web. Also, any changes you make to files in your Dropbox will sync to your other computers, instantly."
  4. Dropbox does not transfer the entire file each time it is changed, but only sends the changed portions. This means that when I change one word in the 20 MB file, only a small amount of data has to be sent back and forth over the Internet, not 20 MB. That makes it useable over our low-bandwidth connection.
You can use the Dropbox folder like any other folder. Drag files into it, make sub-folders, add and delete files, and so on. All those files and sub-folders will be transparently synchronized with your online folder and with any users sharing those files. That last point is important. People sharing your files do not have to do anything to keep their copies up to date, as Dropbox does that in the background.

  1. I create an "AIDS is Real" folder inside my Dropbox folder and drag my 20 MB aids_is_real.doc file into it.
  2. If my collaborator does not already have Dropbox installed, I send her an invitation to install it.
  3. I mark the AIDS is Real folder as shared with my collaborator, for reading and updating.
  4. The Dropbox software automatically downloads aids_is_real.doc into my collaborator's computer.
  5. I open my copy of the document from my local Dropbox folder, make some changes, then save and close the file (changes are not synchronized until the file is closed).
  6. Dropbox software automatically saves my changes to the online copy and to my collaborator's local copy. When my collaborator opens her copy, it is always up to date (as of the last time she was connected to the Internet).
  7. Likewise, when my co-worker changes the file on her computer, those changes will be reflected in my local copy (almost) immediately.
Give it a try! It's well worth the effort if only for the ability to keep 2 GB worth of your important projects safely backed up online. (Of course, how safely depends on the long-term survival, security, and stability of Dropbox; you shouldn't depend on any one service for the backup of your valuable data).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Now you can use Twitter in Nigeria

This is the good news I learned today from Jon's latest blog at In case you don't know, Twitter is a "micro-blogging" service that lets you send tiny posts, limited to 140 characters each. The posts appear on your page where (as you choose) others can view them, but they can also be broadcast by mobile phone text messaging (SMS) to anyone subscribed to you. You can choose to let everyone subscribe, or you can let only approved individuals subscribe, depending on your needs.

The problem has been that last year Twitter stopped sending out those SMS messages in most countries of the world, basically because they didn't have any way to fund the service--someone has to pay for all those messages. Now, as Jon describes, you can use a new service called Twe2 which does send text messages around the world. They're financed by attaching a small text advert to each one, which seems to me a reasonable price to pay to receive free text messages by Twitter.

I'm still trying to subscribe ... it's very easy but requires your mobile phone number to be verified, and sometimes here in Jos it takes many hours for SMS messages to be received, so the verification could take a while.

Now, if I can just figure out a good reason to use Twitter ...

Mobile Internet Services in Jos, Nigeria

As I said in the previous post, I've been researching the mobile ISPs that are currently available in Jos. It's a dynamic situation, with several companies entering or about to enter the playing field, and with promises of broadband 3G service to come "soon". Since 3G is already available in some cities in Nigeria, we hope the "soon" is actually in the near future, this year sometime.

As I said in the previous post, I am summarizing all my information as I gather it, on the Mobile ISPs page in the Living in Nigeria wiki. So go there for more details and for more recent news. Add information if you have it!

The summary at this point is:
  • Although advertising as high speed, MTN offers low-speed (GPRS) service with a variety of monthly and day plans (from a few hours to a full 24 hours). They plan eventually to have broadband (GSM family, UMTS)
  • Multi-links and Zoom offer medium-speed (1x) connections. They plan to have broadband (CDMA family, EVDO). I don't know about actually-observed operating speeds.
    • Multi-links requires you to buy a 21,000 naira phone or 16,000 naira (unavailable) modem.
    • Zoom requires you to buy a 3,000 naira phone or 10,000 naira modem.
    • Multi-links and Zoom both have a variety of plans, but only Multi-links has day plans.
    • Zain and Glo do not offer intermediate range (1x) service and don't seem to have any attractive features at this point.
  • My personal experience with MTN on only a few occasions has been that it is not worthwhile (too slow).
  • I have heard from one person each for MTN, Zoom, and Multi-links that the service has been fair (MTN, Zoom) to good (Multi-links).
My friend who has been testing Zoom (with the rather bulky 1x/EVDO modem) told me today that it's not tolerable for browsing, as far as he is concerned, with very low speeds at times. However, he pointed out that it's ok for email since that can trickle in at any speed.

It is very important to remember that while the companies advertise a connection speed and while the hardware could in fact support that speed, the actual speed is still limited by how much bandwidth the company chooses to pour into the pipeline. Bandwidth is expensive and so far the companies are not actually giving out as much as they could, or so it appears to the consumer.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Using a Blackberry phone in the bush in Nigeria

I plan to post a couple of blog entries soon about using mobile internet services in Nigeria, specifically in Jos rather than in the big cities. If you're interested, you can see and contribute to the wiki page where I'm gathering and organizing the information I have. Meanwhile, this note came from Tom Crago. He is having better luck with a Blackberry phone in the village than I am having with an MTN modem in Jos.
We are using a Blackberry 8830 World Edition cell phone in Nigeria which we obtained and are paying for in the USA. We are currently in the small village of Kwarhi, on the grounds of EYN's Kulp Bible College. This is about 13 km west of Mubi in Adamawa State. By comparision, Jos is a huge metro service area.

The phone is designed to search for the best available service connection wherever we may be. At different times it has connected to MTN or CelTel (now Zain) while we have been in Nigeria. Here in Kwarhi, and in Jos while we were there, it has connected to CelTel's GPRS system. It took about one minute to download the wiki page you reference in your article.

The phone was purchased in the US for 99 dollars, and we got a 70 dollar rebate. Net cost about 29 dollars. Price probably can't be matched now.

We added the global service to this phone just before leaving the US. I don't recall the sim chip charge--20 dollars or so I think. We are charged 65 dollars a month, on top of our US domestic voice service plan, for unlimited 24/7 email and Internet browsing service in 140 countries with partnership agreements with Verizon Wireless, our US service provider.

We have been very pleased with this service in Abuja, Jos and now in the "bush." It seems to work anywhere there is a CelTel tower.
I don't know the cost of the basic voice service plan Tom refers to, but I'm guessing that the monthly total for that plus the data service must be close to $100, currently about 15,000 naira per month, for GPRS (low-to-medium speed) service.

On the other hand, I've tested the MTN service in the past couple of weeks and it has been unusably slow, both at my home and the office, despite having a strong signal.