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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dropbox, I Heart You

This is the first in a series of posts where I will take you through the technology I use every day and explain why it’s important to me. I’m starting things off with a service rather than a gadget, and the picture above does a good job of conveying how I feel about the cloud-based file storage service, Dropbox

It isn’t often that I feel an emotional attachment to a product or service. Typically, I view any company with a wary eye, and wonder if a scam to trick me out of my money is just around the corner. Dropbox, on the other hand, has somehow managed to make me fiercely loyal and actually evangelize their product for them.

What is Dropbox?

Before I get further into why I LOVE this service, I should probably explain what it is in case you aren't familiar with it. Dropbox is a very simple program that takes files placed in the “Dropbox” on your PC (Windows, Mac, or Linux) and creates a copy of those files online, or in other words, the “cloud.” Once in the cloud, you can access your files from any web browser in the world, from the Dropbox app on another PC, or through the Dropbox app on an iOS, Android, or BlackBerry device. Dropbox does a good job of explaining their service further in their online and colorfully illustrated tour.

Geekbit: (tidbit for geeks) The online storage used by the Dropbox service is really a series of data centers across the US that are operated by Amazon Simple Storage Solutions (AmazonS3).

While Dropbox could be simply be used as a solution for backing up files on your PC, its real killer feature is the ability to generate a URL for any individual file or folder in your Dropbox that you can share with any of your friends or colleagues. For example, here is a picture of a very young me (16) after having just completed my first solo flight, and here is different type of shareable link to the image you see at the top of this post. Both images are stored on the hard drive of my PC, but both are also duplicated  in the cloud and thus accessible to you with a simple link. The beauty of this becomes evident when you need to send a file to someone that is far larger than e-mail can handle.

Dropbox also differentiates itself from other basic online backup solutions in that files are synchronized between any PC that I have installed the application on. If I transfer a picture from my digital camera to my desktop, it is automatically uploaded to Dropbox, and downloaded to my laptop, my wife’s laptop, and the media center PC attached to our TV. Other backup solutions such as Mozy, Carbonite, Backblaze and CrashPlan (more on CrashPlan later) simply copy files from your PC to the cloud. They don’t permit multiple PCs to share access to the same files.

Why do I love it?

Nearly two years ago I was sitting in a university classroom (go to school when you are young kids, it’s a pain in the butt when you are older), zoning out while the instructor droned on about the syllabus. He caught my attention when he started repeatedly emphasizing the importance of backing up files for a very large project that we would all be working on. He mentioned it no less than three times in succession and then proceeded to tell a few horror stories from students that had lost everything when their hard drive crashed. From my background in tech support, this was an obvious suggestion as I have borne witness to many horrific and sad data loss stories in my time.

That wasn't the reason I started laughing quietly to myself though. I started laughing when he demonstrated the many complex methods that he uses to backup his data and the ways he reminds himself to backup. I wanted to shout out, “JUST USE DROPBOX!” I politely waited until the end of class and then demonstrated Dropbox to him. He was shocked at the simplicity of the program. During the next class session, he asked me to demonstrate how it works to the students and a few signed up within minutes of my brief demo. I ended up using Dropbox in that class to host pictures that I used for an online folio that needed images hosted somewhere if you wanted people to be able to click on a picture and see the image full size.

Dropbox really is simple to use, and even the highly technophobic will quickly acclimate to how it works. Even though I am fully capable and adept at using very complicated technology, I love simplicity in design. I can handle a technology-related headache, but that doesn't mean I seek them out. After a brief install, and some laughably simple (yet informative) stick-man images demonstrating how the program works, you are up and running.

At this very moment, I am writing this post not on my blog, but rather in a Word document on my PC. I am doing this because every time I hit save, a cloud-based copy of the document on Dropbox is instantly updated and a copy of the document is replicated on any PC I own. During the course of writing this, I started the document on one PC, and finished it on another, all without any effort on my part to transfer the files.

Another feature I love, is that I can login to my account through a web browser and restore any previous version of the document. These prior versions are kept for up to 30 days for no extra cost. In my case, I loved the service so much that I now pay extra  for their “Packrat” feature ($40 a year) which allows me to recover any previous version of a document for as long as I am a Dropbox customer, and also allows me to recover any file that has ever been deleted from my Dropbox. I bet there isn't a single reader of this post that hasn't deleted something and then wished they could undelete it. If I wanted to, I could recover a document I deleted two years ago when I first started using Dropbox and none of those previously deleted files count against my storage limit (until I restore them).

Dropbox has really allowed me to free myself from the restrictions of a single PC. I no longer care if my computer explodes (well, maybe I care a little) because I know that my data is safely backed up. I have always been able to backup my files to another hard drive, but what if my basement floods, or my house burns down? A local hard drive backup won’t save my precious and irreplaceable pictures then. Sure, there are other online backup services out there, but many of them don’t offer me the ability to do something with my files once they are online; they just offer static backup and restore options. Dropbox has forever ended my need to say “Umm sorry these files are huge so I can’t e-mail them to you, let me burn them to a CD.” How many of you carry blank CDs along with your laptop, or always have a flash drive on you when you need to pass a file on to someone? With Dropbox I don’t ever worry about those things. Even when I’m away from my PC, I can send you a file by simply pulling out my iPhone, opening Dropbox, browsing to the file, and clicking “e-mail link.” Just like that, I can send you a DVD worth of files with a few clicks on my phone.

Okay, so now you've got my attention, but nothing is free right?

Well actually, it is free…to a point. The nice part is that “point” for many is all they need. Dropbox starts you off with a free 2GB of space. Immediately after logging in, you can get another 250MB of space just for completing the basic “Getting Started” tasks. You can also add another 640MB of space by completing some simple social media tasks from Dropbox’s free page. In a genius marketing move by Dropbox, they generate tons of publicity and cheap advertising by offering users 500MB of space (recently increased from 250MB) for each person they refer to the service. You don’t have to feel like a jerk shilling for Dropbox either as it's in someone’s interest to be referred since they also get an additional 500MB of space.

You can receive up to 16GB of additional space through referrals, all without spending a dime. If you choose to pay for the service, the amount you get per referral increases to 1GB (the person you refer still gets 500MB) and you can then get up to 32GB of additional space from referrals. Referrals prior to signing up for a paid account are retroactively counted! I am already maxed out on referrals, but if you choose to sign up, you can use my referral link to get your extra 500MB of space. Otherwise, ask a friend who uses Dropbox to refer you so they can enjoy some extra free space as well. 

If you get as hooked as I have, you can opt to pay for more space. I chose the Pro 50 plan which gives me 50GB of space for $99 a year (or $9.99 a month). That space is in addition to the free space you have earned. Dropbox periodically announces other ways to get free space, so keep an eye out on their blog, or just keep coming back here as I’ll be sure to tell you about it. At the moment, their current promotion is for an additional 3GB of free space if you test out their new photo upload feature in the beta version of their software. Through all of my referrals and prior free space offers from Dropbox, I’ve managed to build up a total of 39GB of free space in addition to my 50GB of paid space.

Update: Dropbox now offer 100GB of space at the $99 tier and 200GB for $199 a year !

Are there downsides? Perhaps other competitors?

Yes and yes, as there are with any popular service or product. 

Dropbox relies on an Internet connection to upload your data to Dropbox. This of course means that if you have a slow upload speed for your Internet connection, it can take a long time to upload files initially. A bright side here is that your files are also on your hard drive, so you'll never have a problem accessing files while they are uploading. 

When it comes to costs, Dropbox is not as cost competitive as other backup services. The most space you can get out of them is 100GB 200GB for $199 a year (in addition to free space earned). That simply won’t cut it for some people with a huge amount of data to backup. They do have a "Teams" option aimed at businesses, but the costs start to get exorbitant for individual users. One of the services I mentioned above, CrashPlan, offers UNLIMITED storage online for as little as $35 a year (if you prepay for four years). It is an excellent service, and one I would recommend to anyone seeking a backup of their entire PC who doesn't need the sharing features that Dropbox offers. In my opinion, the added usefulness I get from Dropbox makes up for the added costs. Actually, I use a free version of CrashPlan on my own PC to make a full backup of every file I have to a local hard drive, and then keep the files that are most important to me on Dropbox.

There have also been privacy related issues raised in the past with Dropbox. They do encrypt all files that are uploaded to their service, but it was discovered recently that Dropbox also has the ability to decrypt your files. In fact, they used to do so regularly for a feature they had called Data Deduplication. I was a big fan of this feature as it allowed me to send a very large file to my Dropbox in an instant if someone else had already uploaded the exact same file. For example, a 2GB file would take only seconds to upload with Data Deduplication, but about 15 minutes or more with a very fast 20Mbps upload speed (that very few have in their homes). As it turns out, privacy is a bit compromised with that feature, so Dropbox has turned it off for now. This hasn't changed the fact that theoretically, a Dropbox employee could access your files if they were malicious. I think there is a certain bit of trust that you have to have with any service like this, and it wouldn't be in Dropbox’s interest for employees to do that, so I accept the risks and use it anyways.

There are also a cornucopia of competitors sprouting up, but few in my opinion have managed to retain the simplicity of use and design that Dropbox has. If you are interested, a big consumer name right now is SugarSync. They offer many of the same features as Dropbox does, and even some features that Dropbox doesn't (such as the ability to upload files from any folder and not just the files placed in a specific folder, aka the Dropbox folder). In the enterprise space, and also available to consumers, is Box. Then there’s always the online juggernaut Google that is rumored to be entering this space with their Google Drive. I have my eye on this as I’m a fan of other Google services (guess who’s hosting this blog?), but it may take a sweet offer to pry me away from Dropbox. Finally (this is not a comprehensive list), there’s Microsoft with SkyDrive and Apple with iCloud. Apple’s iCloud service is of course heavily used on iPhone and iPad, and SkyDrive will soon be a big part of Windows 8, but I have always liked the platform agnostic nature of Dropbox. I’m in a quandary here as I use an iPhone and iPad, but prefer Windows when it comes to PCs.

One final risk? Dropbox is a relatively small company of 110 people based out of San Francisco. As their popularity grows, and being based in Silicon Valley, they are ripe for acquisition by a larger entity. You may have seen the press recently regarding Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and the fears people have that Facebook will ruin the service. I have those same fears for Dropbox and I can only hope that they’ll stay true to keeping the service platform agnostic and easy to use. I do have hope though after seeing this story about how the Dropbox founder refused an offer from Steve Jobs himself. 

Images courtesy of Dropbox