Files Are Important

How Dropbox and the App Store are a counterpoint to Web Apps

About five years ago a colleague and I were lamenting the fragmentation of identity and storage caused by the new crop of web apps. You could edit a Powerpoint-like presentation at one site, a photo at another, and check on your calendar at a third site. Each site required a separate login, and your content was stored in some unique new format in a cloud database that you couldn’t extract your data from. We saw a case for abstracting identity and storage to make life easier and less confusing for users and to help with archiving content beyond the life of the web site (e.g. 280Slides, which is now defunct). We were focusing on fixing identity using OpenId-like solutions, but we also thought the answer to cloud storage might be to provide a standard storage service that all the web apps could use.

Five years later my viewpoint has been clarified thanks to applications such as Dropbox. I believe that for most professionals it makes more sense to use locally installed, professional applications and to create and manage your own files, and let Dropbox take care of the increasingly important cloud operations of backup, sync and share. Files are the important assets of our lives, whether they be photos, music, Word, Excel or PDF files. We don’t want them distributed across servers, overly managed and locked out of our control. We do want seamless backup, the ability to share and collaborate around our files, and to be able to view our files from any device. We also want control.

My wife runs a small business using just this type of setup. There are three of us creating content primarily using tools such as Apple Pages and Adobe Illustrator. We work with files and we each have our own copies of these files, complete with versioning, thanks to Dropbox. If Dropbox didn’t exist we might be looking at tools such as Google Documents. But offline access is important, the quality of the online tools isn’t at the same level, and you have that issue of identity and storage fragmentation again. The exceptions where we use the cloud are for email (gmail) and for my wife’s product database, though even with gmail one of us is using the Mac’s local Mail app. The product database is a single Google Docs spreadsheet that her backend web server requires access to via Google’s APIs. At least with our use of Google tooles we have not introduced any new identities to manage beyond our initial Google email login.

Drew Houston nailed it with Dropbox and built the obvious solution that wasn’t so obvious before it existed. He reminds us of what’s important: files and having control. On top of this he delivered all the important features with a local Python-based sync daemon that is drop dead simple to use and includes backup, cross device synchronization, file versioning, and collaborative sharing.

In parallel with the rise of Dropbox has been a renewed interest in apps, driven by iOS. Apple has fixed the old-world problem of fragile operating systems and complicated MSI installers and made it easy to find, install and update apps. These are two significant developments that have served as a check on the under damped progression towards web apps.

Don’t for a moment conclude that Dropbox and local apps can replace the need for cloud solutions. There are still places where a web app can out-innovate a local app with depth of service (e.g. gmail), extend a local app (e.g. Mac Mail when used with gmail), or provide a level of sharing that is otherwise difficult (e.g. Facebook, calendards, Flickr or DocuSign). There’s a balance between the two approaches, and there continues to be a need to make local apps more aware of the cloud. But for many purposes the right solution is to use local apps in combination with Dropbox to take care of the cloud and Apple to take care of updates.

Files are important. Other companies are getting this religion. Box.net, a young but traditionally a large-enterprise cloud storage provider, is about to make a move into the consumer and small business space with easier local sync. Apple and Microsoft are there with iCloud and SkyDrive. Judging by it’s job postings, Amazon looks like it is becoming more serious about Cloud Drive, and Google’s GDrive has been just around the corner for several years now (if only Google would defrag their vision). There are other, smaller players as well.

The winners will be companies that remain open, cross platform and give consumers control; or monopolies that have tighter access to the OS or that aren’t afraid of being legally challenged for anti-competitive behavior. The losers will be companies that operate storage silos or who don’t offer significant benefit beyond the companies’ own monetization goals. I’m afraid I see Adobe’s Creative Cloud as being one such storage silo. Other also-rans will be siloed document repositories such as Doxo, Manilla and Volly, and content creation solutions such as SlideRocket. I don’t see these companies as being complete failures, but rather forsee many years of mediocre success. They will need to re-access the strength of what they have to offer in the cloud, or reappraise how people really want to work rather then chasing under-dampened industry trends.

Update

TechCrunch covers new startup OpenPhoto and quotes founder, Jaisen Mathai:

Personal clouds will eventually win out, but this is a paradigm shift, and most companies and developers don’t think in terms of how and where that data is stored. Companies have a lot to lose by allowing users to take their content elsewhere, but it will happen, and those who stand in the way, leave a trail of unhappy ex-users as they go.

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