Why we still need Dropbox

Last week both Google and Microsoft launched cloud file synchronisation services. Together with Apple, three of the biggest players in tech are now competing with the likes of Dropbox and Box.net.

Google’s service, named “Google Drive” (a name I was hoping they would reserve for their exciting autonomous car project) offers tight integration with Google Docs and other Google products such as Picasa (and no doubt their Chrome OS and Android operating systems at some point in the near future). One of the key selling points of Google Drive is it’s search facility – they even use OCR to let you search images. You get 5GB free, and can get up to 1TB of space if you’re prepared to pay for it. Crucially Drive supports sharing files with others, making collaboration on documents much easier. There is support for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS (no Windows Phone).

Microsoft’s SkyDrive has actually been around for a few years, but has always been a web only interface and so despite their initial offering of 25GB free, it was difficult to see how anyone would ever use that if they had to upload files one by one in a web browser (I think they they knew that too, since now it’s more usable it only offers 7GB for free). SkyDrive too has tight integration with Microsoft’s ecosystem – the upcoming Windows 8 will use it to synchronise the data within Apps, and also to keep your settings in the cloud. Office documents can be opened using Office Web Apps and there’s support for sharing files too. There is support for Windows, Mac, Windows Phone and iOS (no Android).

Apple’s iCloud is a rather different affair. There’s no way to arbitrarily use the storage like a folder, as is the case with the other services mentioned here. Instead developers use the APIs to build iCloud into their apps. For many people this is just fine, after all most normal users just want their documents and photos to be safe, and don’t care so much about the file system underneath. For many (including me) this is a major limitation. It’s great if you own multiple iOS devices (say an iPhone and an iPad) because your bookmarks, notes and documents will stay in sync. It’s not so great if you want to share a document. There is no way for example, for two iPad users to work on a spreadsheet using Apple’s ‘Numbers’ app. It just can’t be done. Of course Apple haven’t added support for cloud rival Dropbox to their apps, so it left me continually emailing a spreadsheet back and forth like it was 1998. Welcome to the future. The biggest downer on iCloud is the lack of Windows support. Not that I would be able to open my Pages documents on Windows anyway. However if you have a Mac and live wholly using Apple’s products, it’s not bad.

So who needs Dropbox?

So with all these major players getting involved, I’ve read a lot of blogs and comments to the effect of “Dropbox is doomed” or that there’s no point in it any more. How wrong could they be.

The purpose of these three services is to keep you within an ecosystem. Each has it’s own small limitations that might seem like a minor inconvenience now, but remember this is your data – and one day you might decide you no longer want to be part of a particular ecosystem, how easy will it be to move all those gigabytes of data? Dropbox (and other pure cloud providers, I just happen to use Dropbox) is not out to try and get me to use their phone operating system, or to to make it difficult for me to share with a rival. They are just offering cloud synchronisation, without the platform politics.