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When the deliciously innovative iMacs were unveiled last year there was a collective gasp: What?! No floppy drive? How do I transfer files?

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But the concern was unwarranted. Forward-looking Apple knew the Internet (and intranets) could take care of everything. In a networked society, there’s simply no reason why data must be something you hold in your hand. Data wants to be free, in more ways than one.

The Net is the land of the free, still flourishing under the gift economy. Share and share alike. This could all change one day, but for the time being, you should take advantage of the freedom … that is, of storage and sharing.

Digital storage space — in the form of PC hard disk and removable media — is no longer as expensive as it used to be, and the Net is adding further discounts.

Take free e-mail. I’ve set up several accounts at different sites. I give out one address to friends, another to meishi collectors, another to mailing lists and so on. This is partly an organizational strategy (OK, so I’m not the neatest person), and partly out of privacy concerns (acts like a spam filter), but it’s also very much a storage issue.

Web-based e-mail sites have disk limits. I grew tired of trying to stay below the limit at one (online mailboxes are great — until you have to sort them), so I just created another account. Voila — another 3 MB with my name on it.

Now, with the advent of online storage sites, I’ve got more real estate available, and options to choose from. Maybe you haven’t heard of Desktop.com, i-drive.com, MyWebOS.com or X:drive, but their names give a clue as to the business they’re in. Some are just drop folders, no frills; others are more soup-to-nuts, offering free e-mail and tools to store calendars, address books or sync with other people’s online desktops. Some are renewing the once-heady idea of a network computer. In most cases, these sites offer advantages beyond mere storage. Consider these:

* Synchronized organization: Your crucial data — phone numbers, addresses, calendars, bookmarks — in one place, no need to sync between two different locations. Left that PowerPoint presentation on your home desktop? No problemo. Log in and retrieve up.

* Collaboration: Some storage sites offer sophisticated tools that facilitate sharing files for group projects. Like an intranet, folders in Web spaces can be shared with the public or a limited group of people. A teacher, for example, can have students submit assignments to an online folder and avoid a mailbox full of attachments.

* Insurance: This is the big conundrum. While storing personal files online might make some people shudder, the data might actually be safer there than on an office computer. At least it’ll be far from prying eyes as well from any acts of God. Some online storage sites offer automatic backup facilities. Storage sites also make sense if your office or school has a strict policy regarding personal files stored locally.

* Ease of use: Your experiments with sending Christmas .jpeg files home weren’t so successful this year? These things are supposed to work, but they’re not as easy as accessing a Web page, simply because browsers can handle multimedia files better than most e-mail applications. MyFamily.com offers online scrapbooks, no HTML programming necessary. Just upload the pics and send Granny the password.

* Remote control: As people grow more reliant on PDAs and Web-surfing cell phones, the need for remote storage will become more apparent. Ditto for those set-top boxes and “dumb” networked appliances, which most likely will lack the storage space of current PCs.

* It’s free!: At least the first 20 MB or so. At most places you’ll have to pay for more.

The interesting thing about the free storage trend is the different ways it’s being packaged. While some are just docking bays for info transfers, some, such as Bungo.com, are aching to be your portal of choice. Why? Because data is not just stored but shared, and that can lead to loyal communities. Look at the plethora of clubs at portals such as Yahoo! and Excite, or mailing list sites such as eGroups.com, and you’ll find communities — be they virtual clubs or online bulletin boards of real-world groups — revolving around shared data. (Yahoo! has smartly made a distinction by offering both Club space for communities and a Yahoo! Briefcase for more personal purposes). Your ISP only allows you 10 MB for your mailing list archive? Take it elsewhere, for free.

Online storage has also predictably ventured into MP3 land, where digital pack rats come with the territory. Last week, a revamped My.MP3.com was launched. While making MP3s has often involved several types of software (Got your ripper? Where’s your encoder?) My.MP3.com makes it absurdly easy. Just stick a CD in your PC, and “beam it” to the site. In a matter of seconds, your CD is “stored” in your online space. You aren’t actually uploading it, just registering your ownership of the CD. The actual MP3 album is in their database (if it isn’t they’ll buy it, they promise). Then from your archived collection, you can program an online playlist. My.MP3.com has also aligned with i-drive.com so that you can browse online MP3s, save them to your online vault and download them later at leisure (or even when while you slumber).

What does My.MP3.com get out of this? A massive database of listening habits, for one. And if the concept flies (similar ones are already popular at MusicMatch and MyPlay.com), it could become the hub of choice and attract major labels to sell their MP3 tracks there.

So you’ve got a virtual desktop, a virtual office, a virtual hot tub and tunes playing on the virtual jukebox. Virtual coolness, right? Still, it’ll take some time before these concepts become the norm. Bandwidth is still the major deterrent, as are the issues of security and convenience. However, once the pipes widen and Net connection fees move to a flat rate, the psychological barriers will dissolve and remotely storing files and CDs 10 km or 10,000 km away won’t seem so remote.

By the way, I happen to have an iMac and big box of diskettes. Anybody need some multicolored coasters? Hell, I’m giving them away.