Dropbox is a Feature

Dropbox is a really great utility, but unfortunately they are still just a utility. And that’s a problem when you have competition with deep pockets.

October of 2011, Forbes posted this juicy bit:

Jobs smiled warmly as he told them he was going after their market. “He said we were a feature, not a product,” says Houston.

I remember most people’s feelings on the matter being split, but I thought it was an astute point from Jobs.

Today, Dropbox announced that the Pro version of their service has been increased all the way to the magical one terabyte mark. Amazing, and it’s cheaper than Google Drive if you pay annually. Amazing.

And with that announcement it is rather clear to me that Dropbox is very much a feature, not the product. Because Dropbox is now battling competition on pricing, and not innovation. Sure, Dropbox has had some great new features, but nothing that has pushed the market forward — I would even argue that Dropbox only adds things when it is clear that rivals are getting better.

Google Drive, SkyDrive, iCloud Drive — these are the main competition Dropbox faces and, save some implementation details, they essentially offer the same functionality. And each one of those products are seen by the companies that own them as add-on services, not the core products. In other words, Apple, Google, and Microsoft just need to keep people using the other core products of theirs, not make money from file storage/sync.

Dropbox very much has to make money, which is a problem when it comes down to competing on price. Because if you can afford to ‘sell’ a feature at a loss, then pricing doesn’t matter to you, but when that feature is your business you simply must make money. And that feature in this case, very much is Dropbox’s business.

Even if you think iCloud Drive is shit, Google Drive and SkyDrive certainly are not — they are good products. All of these products are cross-platform (both mobile and desktop). ((iCloud Drive less so than the others, unsurprisingly.)) And all of them have huge integration advantages with the single most important platform: smartphones.

Initially, Dropbox thought it would win by working everywhere, but it seems they didn’t account for the willingness of the competitors to do the same as we can see that all the competitors are trying to work everywhere as well.

The Key Advantage for Dropbox

The one thing that Dropbox is clinging to is that they are in a lot of other services, but that’s barely a strength given how easy it would be for that to be the case with any of the other services.

In other words, the one advantage Dropbox has, doesn’t have longevity for the company. If your favorite iOS app switched from Dropbox to iCloud, and functionally it worked the same, would you really care?

Likely not, and if you do, you are probably in the minority. Even a couple year’s ago I would have thought it crazy to not integrate a file-based app with Dropbox, but now I don’t think it matters which service you use, as long as it is one of: Dropbox, Google, Microsoft, Apple.

That should scare Dropbox.


Dropbox needs to be more, or they may regret not selling out to Jobs. Back in 2012 Farhad Manjoo wrote a post agreeing with Jobs. In that post Manjoo made a couple prescient points:

In its current form, Dropbox is great at syncing stuff that I’ve saved to my filesystem, but there’s a lot more to device syncing than just what I’ve stored in data files. When I switch from my desktop to laptop to my phone to my tablet, I would really like my device’s “state” to follow me, not just my files.


In a perfect syncing scenario, my laptop would know what I had been doing on my desktop and would offer to open up the right windows for me, preferably in the identical places on the screen—but Dropdox doesn’t do that.

I always hoped Dropbox would do this, but guess who beat them to the punch? Apple.

With OS X Yosemite and iOS 8, your devices recognize when they’re near each other, enabling new features that let them work together in even smarter ways. So the best devices now bring out the best in each other.
When your Mac and iOS devices are near each other, they can automatically pass whatever you’re doing from one device to another. Say you start writing a report on your Mac, but you want to continue on your iPad as you head to your meeting. Handoff lets you switch over and pick up instantly where you left off.

I’ve been using hand off, and it works. It’s pretty neat too — not revolutionary, or where Manjoo probably dreamed of — but it’s a start. And what’s clear to me, and should be clear to Dropbox, is that it seems like an impossible feat to do better than what Apple has done when you don’t own either of the platforms you are working with.

Microsoft, Google, and Apple can and likely will continue down this path of ‘continuity’, but it is there, where the cracks in the Dropbox as a company plan are beginning to show. Because for as great of a utility Dropbox is for file sync and sharing — it’s still just that — a utility.

Even if Dropbox were to try to keep usage states across devices — how do they get that level of access when they don’t own any of the platforms. We once thought of Dropbox as a platform, but each day that seems less and less the case.

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