A Few Thoughts on Dropbox, Apple, and Linchpins

John Gruber is on a bit of an “Dropbox is an essential feature” kick:

The scary part though, is that one recurrent theme I see in nearly every single “how I write on the iPad” story is Dropbox. It’s the linchpin in the workflow.

And in a follow-up post:

Jobs may well have been right that Dropbox is a feature, not a product, but it’s a hell of a good feature, and one that iCloud does not provide.

As you can probably guess, I slightly disagree with this mindset. I think that a year ago Gruber would have been dead on, but I think iCloud is actually changing the importance of Dropbox for many users.

Right now it’s hard to write on an iPad and not use Dropbox, but it’s been getting easier every day. I actually don’t store a single draft or even archive in Dropbox any longer. Everything is in the iA Writer iCloud storage — where the hell that lives I have no clue, but it also doesn’t matter either.

Dropbox is a power user tool/service/feature — a damned good one — just not something the average user is going to leverage in the way that others do. iCloud is a consumer level feature. It’s good enough for power users if they are willing to relinquish control and trust Apple, but mostly it’s a drop-dead simple solution for everyone.

It may be simple to show someone how to use Dropbox, but it’s even easier to show someone how to use iCloud. That’s the killer feature of iCloud: integration.

(The argument in my mind is that Dropbox requires you save to a folder, and recall from a folder. Whether all files just live in the master Dropbox folder, or subfolders, is irrelevant — the user still has to think about a non-default folder. Doubly hard on iOS when the user must pick which of their Dropbox folders to use with the app. Compare that to iCloud where you can just tell someone: save it to iCloud. Both iOS apps and Mac OS X just show iCloud as iCloud [and it is quite cumbersome to actually create folders within iCloud].)

When it comes down to it, iCloud and Dropbox perform the same actions, just interfacing with the user in a very different way. iCloud hides the file system and ties documents to applications, whereas Dropbox is just a syncing file system not tied to any app. The difference is subtle, but important.

In that light I truly believe that Dropbox is the past and not the future of cloud based file storage. Managing files is just not something that a user should need to do any longer. 1

With that said, iCloud scales very poorly. This is the core problem with iCloud right now — just try and find one Writer file amongst hundreds, or thousands even — you’ll likely end with your heading banging on the desk.

Here’s the thing though: iCloud’s problem is a UX/UI issue (i.e., easily fixed). Dropbox could easily shift into iCloud, but that’s not the service that they sell and they won’t get that kind of OS level integration from Apple or Microsoft — both have competing services — and therefore a technically easy shift becomes nearly impossible because of the competitive landscape.

It should be interesting to see how this unfolds in the next few years.

Updates (December 18, 2012): Chris Gonzales adds his thoughts on this matter and makes a fantastic point:

iA Writer, an example used by Ben as a fully self-contained solution, could go out of business someday. What happens to that data? Does Apple allow you to export it for use in other apps?

I do wonder what, if anything, will happen to my data if one of these apps does go under.

  1. I suspect too that iCloud is more of the model Microsoft will take with SkyDrive, with the added feature being that it will work like Dropbox on non-Windows systems.
Originally posted for members on: December 17, 2012
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