Another look at Dropbox

A picture named elmersGlueAll.jpgBig tech companies don’t trust users, small tech companies have no choice. This is why smaller companies, like Dropbox, tend to be forces against lock-in, and big tech companies try to lock users in.

That’s why Dropbox is so useful and the stuff that the big companies have produced so far has been so crippled.

It’s a good thing that Apple didn’t buy Dropbox because you certainly wouldn’t be able to store any kind of file you want in any structure you like inside an Apple-owned Dropbox.

The BigCo guys would tell you it’s a formula for chaos to give users so much power, but they’ve been saying that forever, and they’ve been right in their own contexts, and wrong in the larger one. Big tech companies come and go, but this idea of not trusting users has been a constant.

So to think that Dropbox couldn’t grow to become a platform the size of Apple or Amazon, well you have to make that argument, you can’t just say it. It’s the kind of careless inside talk I’d expect from an average tech writer, not the great Farhad Manjoo! (No sarcasm, not even the slightest bit.)

Google thinks files and folders are obsolete ideas. Oy. That’s like Ford and Exxon thinking that roads and traffic lights are obsolete. It’s true perhaps that we could invent better ways to store user’s info today, but that’s the way we store information. It’s not going to change just because a product manager at Google or Microsoft thinks it should.

When Google finally releases their GDrive product, I bet it will manage files and folders the way Dropbox does. Who do we have to thank for that? Dropbox. But if history is a guide, they’ll probably screw it up some other way. Limit the power of users in some way that Dropbox doesn’t.

Re Bill Gurley’s assertion that there’s something special about the Dropbox synchronization algorithm, I’m a Dropbox user and I don’t see it. I think the algorithm has some cosmetic glitches. No matter, it’s still a useful product (this is not a bug report). The advantage Dropbox has is that it’s a small company that’s got a big idea, and they’re executing well. The big competitors are good at huffing and puffing, and impressing reporters, but that’s not where the fight is won or lost.

Now to Farhad’s assumption that this service has to be free — why? That’s so depressing. What else in life is free? If I want to eat lunch I pay the restaurant. If I want to ride on the subway, I have to pay to do so. Again, in a very untypical fashion, Farhad just states that it’s obvious that it has to be free. Well, that requires an argument. Maybe he’s right, but why?

I like the fact that I pay for Dropbox. That means that they would be wrong to attach a horribly invasive business model to mining what could be some of my most sensitive data. It’s really foolish to give all that stuff to a company without having a customer relationship with them.

As to the niceties, having it be able to remember the state of all your apps, it doesn’t matter to me. Everything about how I use computers is so chaotic, it would be a very small thing to remember which apps and which windows within the apps were open. You know what I’d like even more — having iPad browser tabs not refresh when you activate them. One of the most annoying features ever. But Topolsky wants Dropbox to know about the state of apps and windows, and maybe a lot of others do too. Let’s see if we can get it. Maybe if the users got active and said to the people who make the operating systems that we want Dropbox and we want those features, they would work with them to give us what we want. But if I had to choose between good relatively safe synchronization that Dropbox provides and the mess that Apple provides, well, there’s no choice.

But the really huge big gaping hole in Farhad’s piece is that any of the big vendors are going to work better with their big compeitors than they would with the upstart Dropbox. Apple’s synch server will give you lots of neat features but only for your Apple-made devices. Same with Google and Microsoft. That’s a pretty worthless feature if you own an Android phone, an Amazon tablet and an Apple desktop.

Farhad has fallen into the trap that all tech writers seem to fall into eventually. They stop seeing the user as an important factor in the outcome of tech industry warfare. But if you look at history, not only are the users important, they’re the only constant power. And they vote out lock-in, eventually. And that tends to favor Dropbox, not the incumbents.

Dropbox has the opportunity to build a platform that sits outside all the platforms we’ve come to know. Their challenge is to get users to care whether they can connect their Dropbox data to the devices they use. So far, they’ve done better than anyone else. And they won’t have to deal with the second-guessing and turf wars that happen inside big companies. I don’t think it’s a slam dunk that Dropbox will grow to be a huge tech company, but I also don’t think their product is just a feature.

Steve Jobs didn’t say these things about other people’s products, btw, because he had given it a lot of thought. He did it because he had a nasty streak, and he was trying to demoralize a competitor who didn’t want to sell to him. I’m pretty sure they do this in other industries too. I’ve seen it done many times in tech.

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About Dave Winer

Dave Winer, 54, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California.
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