Google is hoping to build the world's largest digital filing cabinet in the latest attempt to deepen people's dependence on its services.
The Internet search leader began its pursuit of the audacious goal Tuesday with the much-anticipated debut of Google Drive, a product that stores personal documents, photos, videos and a wide range of other digital content on Google's computers.
By keeping files in massive data centers, users will be able to call up the information on their smartphones, tablet computers, laptops, and just about any other Internet-connected device. Content can also be more easily shared among friends, family and co-workers by sending links to the information instead of emailing large attachments.
Google Drive is offering the first 5 gigabytes of storage for free. Monthly prices for additional storage will range from $2.49 for 25 gigabytes to $49.99 for 1 terabyte, equivalent to five laptops with 200-gigabyte drives.
The service is initially available through a Web-based interface or as a software installation on Windows-based computers, Mac computers, laptops running on Google's Chrome operating system and smartphones powered by Google's Android software. A version compatible with Apple's hot-selling iPhone and iPad devices is due in the next few weeks.
It may be several weeks before Google Drive is available throughout the world. Many Google users were simply told Tuesday to check back and request to be notified.
Offering online storage is part of a technological shift away from storing personal files on a single machine in a home or office. Users instead are entrusting data to computing hubs accessible just about anytime, at any place, with Internet access. The concept has become popularly known as cloud computing.
For all of its technological know-how, Google is a late arrival in what is shaping into the Internet's version of storage wars. Other combatants with a head start include two other technology heavyweights, Apple and Microsoft, and pioneering start-ups such as Dropbox and Box.
Google is hoping to differentiate its storage service by equipping it with more convenient and powerful tools. Google Drive will draw upon the company's expertise in Internet technology for text and images to make it easier to find data quickly. It can search within documents, for instance, while Dropbox looks for file names. It also includes optical character recognition that can search for specific words contained in scanned newspapers or other sources.
Google Drive is gearing up five years after word first leaked that Google was working on an online file storage service, then called Gdrive. The lengthy delay made it seem as if it all might be an urban legend, until Tuesday. In a blog post, Google poked fun at itself for taking so long, likening Google Drive's announcement to the sighting of the Loch Ness Monster.
But Google still has plenty of time and, more importantly, plenty of firepower to topple the competition, said Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg.
"We are entering this era where the personal cloud is going to be more important than the personal computer, so to remain relevant, Google needed a service like this," he said.
Even so, the new service threatens to amplify the privacy concerns that already have been swirling around Google as it gathers a trove of personal information through search requests, correspondence sent through Gmail, videos watched on YouTube and posts on the Google Plus social network.
"How Google addresses the 800-pound gorilla knocking on the door – privacy – will define how the company is widely perceived by the public. Google Drive will be a key part of this test," said Ethan Oberman, chief executive of online storage service at SpiderOak.
This marks Google's second foray into online storage. Following Apple's lead, Google last November opened a music store that included free storage for up to 20,000 songs per user.
Google Drive is starting out by undercutting the 5-year-old Dropbox, which has emerged as an early leader in online storage by attracting more than 50 million users who collectively sync about 500 million files a day.
Dropbox, which is based in San Francisco, offers only 2 gigabytes of free storage – less than half of Google Drive – and sells 100 gigabytes for $20 per month, or $200 annually. Google Drive, by contrast, is charging $5 per month, or $60 annually, for the same amount of storage.
Apple's iCloud service, which is designed for owners of the company's mobile devices and computers, also offers 5 gigabytes of free storage, while charging $100 annually for an additional 50 gigabytes. Microsoft's SkyDrive offers 7 gigabytes to new users and 25 gigabytes to those who had joined before this week. In a move that may have been driven by Google Drive, Microsoft announced Monday that SkyDrive will sell 100 gigabytes of storage for $50 a year.
Dropbox indicated it is counting on its unwavering focus on online storage to fend off Google, which has diversified from Internet search into email, photo sharing, social networking, online video and smartphones.
"Companies of all shapes and sizes have tossed in their hats over the years, but we've stayed ahead by building the best possible experience and making a product that millions of people love," Dropbox said.
Dropbox, started in 2007 by two graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is backed by $257 million in venture capital. Google ended March with more than $49 billion in the bank.
But Google's deep pockets haven't always been enough to overcome the early lead of smaller companies that carved out new niches on the Internet. For instance, Google hasn't been able to build an online social network to surpass Facebook, despite years of trying. It's still trying to mount more serious challenges to online review site Yelp and online coupon service Groupon.
Google also has the advantage of being able to dangle the storage service in front of the more than 1 billion people who already use its Internet search engine or other popular products.
All those services have required users to entrust Google with valuable insights into their personal interests and intimate details about their lives. If Google Drive takes off, the company will become a bigger custodian of sensitive data. Privacy watchdogs fear Google already knows too much, but Gartenberg doubts those concerns will undermine Google Drive.
"A lot of people already trust Google," he said. "If you already feel comfortable using Google's services, then you will probably use Google Drive, too."
Google shares gained $3.67 Tuesday to close at $601.27.