Got some time on a plane, a train, or just to yourself this holiday weekend? Save Wired’s excellent and detailed profile of Dropbox, the software service that’s hard to describe because it does so beautifully little, for later reading. The profile is a great balance of storytelling, characterization, and just enough detail for geeky wonks. But let’s get just a bit more inside-baseball with how this handy little tool won the hearts of minds of so many--especially those with smartphones and tablets.
Basically, Dropbox is a big folder (2 GB on freebie starter plans) that automatically backs up every little change you make to any file on any system you’re using. And that means any system: Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone, iPad, Android, or BlackBerry, plus the clever standard and mobile-sized versions of Dropbox’s web site. As Rachel Swaby’s profile points out, Dropbox installs easily, and all it really does is create a folder in your home folder (Mac and Linux) or your Documents folder (Windows). It’s a folder with an etched Dropbox logo and a very reassuring check mark, but it is, essentially, just a folder. Whatever you drop in that folder is backed up the second it lands there, and then it lands on all your other systems where Dropbox is installed (or is available for download, at least, on mobile devices). Sharing files through Dropbox is darned simple, too: either copy a link from a right-click or from the Dropbox web site, or share entire folders with other Dropbox users for real-time collaboration.
Getting that system just right took a whole lot of work, both on the front end and (moreso) the server side, but, still, there are a few intangibles that made Dropbox such a big success among the early adopting, tech-loving crowd. Here’s my stab at a few of them:
A great Linux client
Nobody’s really thinking that 2012, or any year after it, is the mythical “Year of the Linux Desktop.” But Dropbox went ahead and made a great client for Linux, one that installs as easily and works as seamlessly as on Windows or Mac. Part of that is Dropbox’s mission to be available everywhere, and part of it is probably one Dropbox developer’s fondness for the open-source platform. I think that has greater impact than just the 1 percent using Linux, which is less than those using iPhones. Linux desktop users are, at least in one author’s experience, a go-to source for tech support among family, friends, and coworkers, and installing Dropbox for others is a robust solution to many, many problems involving attachments, missing files, and file sharing. And I’m sure the Dropbox team gained some impressive design and technical chops in crafting a Linux client that is scads more friendly to beginners than most apps. (Note, too, that most of this applies in equal measure to Spotify, Google’s Chrome browser, and other boldly cross-platform software).
A mobile app that doesn’t "sync"
Dropbox’s founders were called into Apple’s headquarters to discuss, basically, a potential purchase and integration into Apple’s iCloud service (then called MobileMe). That’s impressive, but it didn’t happen, because the founders want to build a company, rather than retire young. Startup politics aside, it’s telling to see how the two mobile access services differ.
iCloud stores certain types of files on Apple’s servers, pushes some of them automatically to all your Apple devices, and as a result can sometimes take up a big chunk of space on your device. Dropbox does automatic syncing and downloading on desktops, but on mobile devices, it’s more like a very polished interface with the Dropbox web site. You can download and open any file saved to your Dropbox, but they don’t land on your phone until you need them. In the meantime, you can upload any file you’d like to Dropbox very easily: pictures, a ZIP package someone attached to an email, anything you’d like.
One could make the argument that Apple’s approach is very, well, Apple: automatic, without the user having to worry about the details. Dropbox’s approach, though, is transparent, works on Android and BlackBerry as well as it does on iOS, and supports any and all files. Another nicety that makes Dropbox feel like an upgrade to every little bit of your life that involves computers.
Dropbox makes sending files almost fun
When you ask someone who’s fluent in Dropbox to send you a PDF, a batch of photos, a video, or nearly any other files, chances are, you’re going to get a very short link sent your way. Open that link in a browser, and it looks great. Photos open up in nice, big gallery views with easily accessible “Save” links. Folders offer options to be saved as ZIP-compressed archives. And documents, videos, and audio files offer in-browser playing previews, so the person receiving the link can make sure they’re grabbing the right stuff. It all sounds so simple, and so normal, but that’s only if you haven’t tried to share files any other way recently.
Wired’s profile implies that a more robust file sharing system is cooking on the backburners at Dropbox. But even the simple, clean system in place now must be very tempting to those who don’t have an account. “Who is this person, so easily able to send me files over the web?” the shared-with must think. And then they install Dropbox during half a coffee break, and the story of well-deserved success goes on.