Not sold on life in the cloud? Polkast may be just the thing

There are a lot of benefits to storing personal data in the cloud. But with the increasing amount of digital stuff we create and collect — photos, Word and PDF documents, music, and so on — the cost for most of us to actually store everything in a cloud storage service could get pretty high.

The fact is, most of us still use our personal computers and hard drives as the home base for the bulk of our data, from highly sensitive documents to the latest batch of ┬áparty photos. And if you forget to upload one of those things to the cloud or email it to yourself before you head out, you’re out of luck if you want to access it on the go.

That’s where a startup called Polkast comes in. Polkast’s has free apps for Android and Apple iOS, let you access all the files on your home or work computer from your iPhone (s AAPL), iPad or Android (s GOOG) device. Essentially, Polkast is like a free, pared-down version of Citrix’s (s CTXS) GoToMyPC, made for today’s app-dominated world. The Polkast app launched six weeks ago, and it’s gotten solid traction in both the Apple and Android app marketplaces.

Polkcast for iPad accessing photos (click to enlarge)

Cloud benefits, minus the cloud

It works like this: Polkast creates a connection that resembles a virtual private network (VPN) — the company prefers to call it a “direct cloud” — that lets your mobile devices access your computers directly. When you want to access files, the service automatically detects your mobile device’s proximity to the PC and chooses the fastest route: Wi-Fi or over the Internet. Polkast then opens a secure password-protected SSL connection between the two devices, and encrypts all transmissions.

As long as your computer is turned on and connected to the web, and your mobile device is connected to the Internet, Polkast works. (The app is fastest when both PC and mobile device are on the same WiFi connection — but I’ve used Polkast from miles away with speedy results as well.) The company has filed five patents on its technology.

A realistic look at personal data storage

Polkast CEO Hong Bui is quick to point out that his company is not anti-cloud — it’s just realistic. “There are all these wonderful cloud solutions out there. But they usually limit you to between two to five gigabytes of storage before they get very expensive,” he told me in an interview this week. “They seem to forget that we have 500 gigabytes on our home and work computers. You can’t ignore the other content we accumulate there.”

I think Polkast has the potential for very wide appeal for one big reason — it lets you access all your photos, no matter where you are. There are a lot of great photo storage and sharing sites, but if you took 400 photos at a wedding last weekend, chances are you’re not going to upload every single one to Flickr or Facebook directly. You’re going to load them onto your hard drive, and put a small selection online. But Polkast can be used to access your entire photo library at any time — whether you’re playing with your iPad on the couch at home, or wanting to show friends a particular photo when you see them in person.

The bottom line dilemma

Polkast, which is self-funded right now, has one big hurdle ahead: It has yet to make money. Polkast, based in Capo Beach, California, has eight full-time employees. Its apps and services are currently totally free; the company intends monetize eventually by rolling out a premium paid version with extra features targeted at corporate users.

That means a big part of Polkast’s long-term viability depends on its ability to get those customers to pay up. Since Polkast appeals so much to privacy-minded users (at no point is the service in control of your data) it would be hard for the company to make revenue by, say, running ads alongside the service. But if it can get corporate users to pay for the service, the app could have a big future ahead.