Finding a Hassle-Free Way to Send Files
Published on NYTimes.com , June 21, 2007, 11:51 am
Readers seem to love it when they hear about tech “experts” like me getting trapped in technical hell. Seems to be a form of schadenfreude, that delicious German word meaning, “taking pleasure in other people’s misfortune.”
In any case, here’s a great one for all you schadenfreudians.
On Tuesday, I flew to California to give a talk. As I settled onto the plane to work on my laptop, though, I realized with a jolt that I had forgotten to copy one critical item onto it. See, in my Times column today, I reviewed five new cameras. Now, whenever I review cameras, I also create a slide show of sample photos, which appears on the Web next to the article. I had planned to spend my flight culling through the two gigabytes of test photos I’d taken, choose the shots for the slideshow, scale them down to the right size (650 by 450 pixels), write captions, and send them off to my editors.
Unfortunately, my brain turns to mush when I have to wake up too early. I’d forgotten the two-gigabyte folder of photos.
My flight was landing at 3:30 p.m. California time, so I wasn’t worried. My wife, Jennifer, is pretty good as a techie and *really* good as a wife. I knew she’d be willing to send those photos via the Internet. No sweat.
The only question was how to send them. Two gigs is way too big to send by e-mail. My first thought, therefore, was to ask Jennifer to use my FTP program.
FTP (file transfer protocol) is the way most geeks shuttle big files around. It’s how many Web designers upload the files and graphics for their Web sites, for example. Average people generally don’t have much contact with FTP, but it’s not especially complicated.
You download a free or shareware “FTP client” program. You type in a server address, a user name and a password, and then click Connect. You’re confronted with the contents of that Web-based FTP site, which just looks like a list of files. You can add your own files to it just by dragging them into the window.
So after my wife tucked the kids in bed, I walked her through the process over the phone. She even zipped up the photos folder into a 1.6-gigabyte archive—a single file, rather than a folder full of them—to make things go faster.
But the FTP program didn’t work. It spent half an hour pretending that it would work (“preparing files…”), but then bombed out with a mysterious “connection error.” Jennifer tried several times, even re-zipping the folder and rebooting the computer. No dice. For some freaky reason, FTP wasn’t going to work.
At this point, we’d lost a lot of time; it was 7 p.m. in California, and I still needed time to make the slide show. I had another idea: use a chat program!
Not everyone realizes that those chat programs—AIM, iChat, Yahoo Messenger, and so on—are great for transferring files. You can just drag a file’s icon into the little box where you type, and then hit Return. The beauty of this technique is that it halves the transfer time. With FTP, Jennifer would have to upload the file (two hours or whatever) and then I’d have to download it (two more hours).
A chat program, though, is peer-to-peer. The package arrives on my end at the same time it’s uploading on her end.
I use this technique all the time, but I’d never tried it with such a big file. Unfortunately, we tried two different chat programs, and both were choked by the size of the file.
I called Brian Jepson, the technical editor for some of my books; he knows everything. I told him everything I’d tried, and then asked him: Isn’t there some way I can get access to my computer at home, taking control of it from my end? He told me that I could just use SSH to tunnel in, using Unix commands to remap port 22 to avoid the firewall issues with my dynamic I.P. address.
It was over my head, and I doubted I’d be able to explain it to Jennifer if I didn’t get it.
Finally, in desperation, I remembered a pitch that some PR person had made a year ago. It was for Pando (pando.com), a free, cross-platform, super-simple program designed expressly for idiotproof file transfers, even big ones. I remember having tried it once successfully.
So as midnight approached, Jennifer and I both downloaded Pando. There’s no signup, no registration, no fee. You open this program, drag your file—or even ordinary, uncompressed folders—into Pando’s open window, and click Send. It asks you for the e-mail address of the recipient, and off you go.
The free version maxes out at 1-gigabyte files, so I had to upgrade to the $5-a-month plan, at least for this month. Now Jennifer hit Send, the file began uploading, and the two of us, on opposite coasts, went to bed.
I woke up early and found the Pando message in my e-mail box. There was a tiny, 2-kilobyte attachment that, when opened, fired up the Pando program and began downloading the package. Shortly thereafter, the deed was done; I had my two gigs of photos in California.
I remembered why I hadn’t loved Pando before; it seemed like a hassle that both parties have to have the free software. With FTP, at least I can send you a link (by e-mail) that begins downloading my file immediately; I’d rather not ask you to go download a special program just to receive my file.
But I have to admit that once you’re past that hump, Pando is dog-simple to use: just drag the file or folder, click Send, and supply the recipient’s e-mail address. Its servers are fast, the whole thing is anonymous and secure—and above all, it works.
How’s that for schadenfreude?