Aiming for the Cloudtop

In my day-to-day work I end up using a number of physical machines and all three major operating systems. I do most of my work on Linux, but I use Windows machines for all my electrical engineering work (mostly MATLAB and a few design programs). I use my Mac Mini for my music and videos and if I need to use a computer at the library I prefer using their iMacs. I often find myself needing to transfer files between machines (especially if I need to print something). Even the school gives students a gigabyte of space on a network drive, I never got it to work on Linux. In the past I’d use a combination of email and USB drives to moce stuff around, but a few weeks ago I started using Dropbox and I’m quite happy with it.

I haven’t been able to quite pin down what makes Dropbox successful when other similar applications haven’t done so well. I think a large part of the reason is that Dropbox seamlessly melds the cloud and the desktop. They have desktop apps for Windows, OS X and Linux that all actually work. The way I use it Dropbox acts as simple folders on my local machines and are immediately synced with the corresponding folders on all the other machines. And whenever I’m at a computer where I can’t install Dropbox, I can just use their web interface (which is well done and very frictionless). It also helps that Dropbox gives me 2GB completely for free. I have friends who are pushing that limit already, but since I just put stuff like homework I need to print off, that should last me a while.

Part of the reason for why Dropbox feels so easy to use (and I becoming very popular) is that it seamlessly fits in to the way you work. Dropbox doesn’t sell itself as a backup or some kind of complex, high powered auto-syncing solution. It does one thing well — keeps a folder exactly the same on all your machines. You don’t have to manually upload files to a webservice or specify which folders you want to sync and what not to. You just put everything in one place (your Dropbox) and rest assured that it will be the same on whatever computer you’re on.

As Anil Dash says, the key to apps like Dropbox and Evernote (which I don’t use myself) is that they inhabit a sort of “in-between” space that exists across both the web and the desktop. They don’t try to deny to deny the presence of the desktop by offering an all-powerful web UI. Instead they embrace the idea that you’ll be using multiple heterogeneous platforms. The web is just yet another interface. They also offer an API meaning that developers can’t extend it for purposes that the original service provider doesn’t support. Another aspect of these apps that I find refreshing (as compared to Delicious for example) while they allow for sharing and a certain social environment, it isn’t central to the service’s operation.

I’m hoping that these sort of “cloudtop” services get more traction as time progresses. In particular, I’d love to see things like user preferences be synced as well as folders and data. On a parallel note, I’d like to export services already present in applications get streamlined as well. As an example, iPhoto allows for export plugins so that you can directly upload your photos to places like Flickr, Picasa or Facebook. Unfortunately the upload process generally blocks the whole app instead of happening seamlessly in the background. I think we’re getting closer to a future where all our data is available seamlessly everywhere. I hope there isn’t too much fragmentation in the area as it would a pain to have to use half-a-dozen different apps to keep my data in sync (especially if they’re all using a different way to do it). This market is still in its infancy but apps like Dropbox are leading the charge and they promise to make computing much easier all involved.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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