Dropbox is valuable because it's a screwdriver, not a multi-tool

Some have called Dropbox's value and future into question. I say trust the service that does one thing very well.

Dropbox and some laptops, so happy together

I write about Dropbox quite a lot, but for a good reason. Tech writers and industry insiders have to keep and organize drafts, research, photos, and files related to app and hardware testing, and most of us use Dropbox to keep it all accessible and organized across all our hardware. Sometimes the love gets a little unseemly, and someone goes and does something like declare Dropbox a future $40 billion company. At that point, the urge to pop the bubble proves basically irresistible.

[ More reasons why Dropbox has won so many geeky hearts ]

And so it was that Farhad Manjoo (a writer I have great respect for, and whom I always seek out to read) referenced Steve Jobs’ supposed quote to Dropbox’s founders: what they had was “a feature, not a service.” And then, the counter-counter-point, from venture capitalist Garry Stage. I’ll try to sum up both posts, as neatly as I can. Manjoo claims that people need more than just files synced between their desktop, laptop, mobile, and web browsers, they need everything synced: browser tabs, the apps open, even files you’re in the middle of editing. Stage claims, rightfully so, that this could only work inside silos of total brand surrender, where people own a Windows Phone, a Windows-8-powered tablet, a Windows laptop, and they’ve fully bought into Windows Live. The same goes for Google, and especially Apple, which will never make quality sync available to Windows and, especially, Linux users.

I think Stage’s point is correct, that none of the big three platform players are interested in anything other total user buy-in, which just doesn’t seem likely, or even favorable. I like my Android phone, my household iPad, and my Linux-powered ThinkPad, and only Google can kind-of-sort-of cover all those devices, in terms of Gmail access, streaming music, Chrome tabs, and the like. And Manjoo seems to want to take Dropbox down a peg or two for sticking to one thing it does very, very well. See this rather popular mini-rant on the Q&A site Quora about Dropbox: you put things in it, those things sync almost always flawlessly, and that’s it. Open any web browser, or open your Dropbox folder on any system, and there be those things.

But here’s another point about universal syncing, versus one-thing-well services like Dropbox, that occurs to me every few months: all your eggs in one basket is a terrible idea. I can’t single out one service where that’s been a bad idea, but I can count two or three people who have lost things, important things, to the idea of Total Sync Solutions. People have upgraded to a new version of iOS to find contacts, documents, and apps living in a weird half-state between available and not. Google users, well--just ask any otherwise pro-Google person about their Google Contacts list. I don’t know many people who are Windows Live devotees, but I can tell you that a lot of Hotmail accounts seem to get hacked every month, judging from the friends that suddenly turn into generic prescription sellers.

And that’s my strongest argument for Dropbox’s value. There are lots of reasons somebody with terrible intentions might want to get into your Gmail, your Apple Photo Stream, or your stash of passwords and work documents in Windows Live, whether targeting you personally or just trying to spam people. You can lose access to your account temporarily or permanently. Dropbox has, to my knowledge, not been a notable target for spammers, virus spreaders, or jerks, because in most cases, the best they’ll get are a whole bunch of documents, images, and maybe a few MP3s.

The computers of today and the near future can do a lot of things for us, but they can’t explain the value of a good screwdriver for certain jobs over a multi-tool.

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