Why Use Dropbox?

dropbox

Dropbox and Einstein have something in common.

This is a bold statement but I draw the analogy because both offered new solutions to problems that few people had even identified (i.e., once we understood what we were missing, we discovered new, essential ways of using the new discovery). Also, in both instances, the simplicity and the elegance of the solution was the defining part of its true genius. A caveat to this accolade of course, is that Dropbox operates within a smaller microcosm (literally, ethereally and temporality-speaking).

Having delved deeply into the various options on the market for remote file access, storage, backup and synchronization, I can only conclude that the founders and/or designers of Dropbox have a true knack for reductionism. They seem to have been able to uniquely shed the usability complexities with which all other competitors are still currently hampered. That is, imho, a sign of true genius.

So, What Does Dropbox Do For You?

Dropbox is a “synchronization” service.

  1. It offers you the ability to have all your files replicated on any of your PCs and to access that same file structure from other devices (e.g., tablets or smartphones)*
  2. It automatically replicates files of any size between any of your computers that are running the app and to those of your contacts’ when you have set up shared folders with those contacts (you don’t have to replace that lost USB stick now).
  3. It also (as automatic side effect of the above) backs up all those files on your multiple PCs and the Cloud (server) at the same time.

The key here is that Dropbox uses your normal desktop file structure – no further actions or learning is required. That, imo, is the magic of this service!

* The Dropbox mobile app does offer the ability to download “Favourite” files to the device, but due to the limited storage capacity of the device, this is essentially a different experience from that at the PC (i.e., the mobile app does not download your full set of files, like the PC can)

The Timing is Right

A few years ago, when I only had one or two PCs with limited hard drive space, this approach would not have been so appealing due to obvious capacity constraints. In those days, I experimented with Orb, GotoMyPc or other home-PC file-sharing or desktop sharing apps. These apps worked fine but had some usability, (slow) network and complicated set-up issues.

However, now (like many of you, I imagine), I have multiple PCs with large hard drives (extra capacity) and other devices (that take photos that I want to consolidate or share in real-time). Hence, Dropbox has arrived at the perfect time for many of us, when we have files scattered across devices and PCs and are (and should always be) worried about losing those precious files through the crash of a hard-drive.

The advent of Dropbox and other synchronization services timed with the emergence of large hard-drive capacities and almost ubiquitous internet connectivity have largely superseded many of the features and benefits derived from the traditional desktop-sharing and remote-access apps. Thank God!

How Well Are They Doing?

Here is a recent (Nov, 2011) quote from a Forbes article that talks about how Steve Jobs offered to buy them. This is the relevant part for this article: ”Dropbox’s ascent has been just as stunning. The 50-million-user figure is up threefold from a year ago, and it has solved the “freemium” riddle, with revenue on track to hit $240 million in 2011 despite the fact that 96% of those users pay nothing. With only 70 staffers, mostly engineers, Dropbox grosses nearly three times more per employee than even the darling of business models, Google.” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/victoriabarret/2011/10/18/dropbox-the-inside-story-of-techs-hottest-startup/).

Their current evaluation is between $6-10B (http://techcrunch.com/2011/08/13/dropbox-chooses-investor-group-valuation-set-at-5-billion).

Apparently their goal is 50 Billion users, which judging by how international they are (only 30% of users are from the US) is possible, imo. They do need to specify a time period with that goal though!

In order for you to judge if you want to use Dropbox, I think it is important for you to consider the alternatives (competitors) in the context of what it is you want to do with your data. Hence, I am now going to jump into the competitive landscape and my own personal data strategy and choices.

Hopefully, you will find that helpful when you decide your data storage strategy and whether you want to use Dropbox or try one of the many competitors.

My Personal Data Strategy

I essentially slice my data into groups, depending on the following key factors:

  1. The importance of the data
    1. Super-important
    2. Important
    3. Unimportant
    4. How frequently I access it
      1. High frequency
      2. Low frequency
      3. Do I need to share the data?
        1. Securely
        2. Don’t care if its secure
        3. Cost
          1. Willing to pay high price for super-secure storage if in small amounts
          2. Only willing to pay low cost for large amounts of unimportant data

These factors help me determine which type of data has which need.

Hence, this is my personal data strategy-mapping table: 

Dropbox data table

To strongly protect the type of data that would be personally embarrassing, cause financial loss, be of a great personal loss (e.g., kid’s photos) or mean some degree of chaos in my life if I were to lose it.To summarize, my priorities are as follows:

  1. To access easily the data that I need frequently, like work data or other stuff I need on a regular basis (e.g., travel confirmations, expenses logs, budgets, blog content etc.). I also want this data backed up very reliably. Having experienced Dropbox, I now realize how important it is for me to have this ability (although I question the security of Dropbox now).
  2. To have a simple, very low cost way to back up the huge amounts of music and movies that I rarely access but still regard as worth keeping (perhaps I am a hoarder?). These files are neither important or worth spending much money on.

The Competitive Landscape

In order to write this article, I have had to do considerable research across a wide range of players and sub-sectors. This is because there are literally hundreds of what I would call “Adjacent Competitors”. Many companies offer solutions that almost satisfy the same need of the user but do so in a sometimes slightly different way.  Other companies also offer fuller solutions that also satisfy those needs as a side effect of satisfying another need (e.g., Box.net)

External Hard Drives

These are popular competitors to any type of online storage due to the perception of a one-time cost and (I think) the fact that you can actually feel like you own it – i.e., it’s tangible. I use many of these to collectively back up everything. However, I personally do NOT rely on these for backing up my most important files (work and key life files such as photos, insurance docs, tax docs etc.). I always have an online storage option of some type going for those most important files as a secondary backup. I regard this as my insurance policy that I pay a monthly premium on to ensure that those files are never lost. Sh** happens, hard drives break at exactly the same time as a PC or there could even be a fire. As one ex-colleague used to put it “it’s the asymmetry of risk”, meaning that it doesn’t matter if the chances are low, if that chance means complete disaster then you should be compelled/ advised to insure against it.

One other thing I wanted to point out is that I have never had a hard-drive that has lasted more than 3 years, so the perception that there is a one-time cost is false (although the prices are falling rapidly now, which still makes it the cheapest approach).

I only make one backup of my movies and stuff that I don’t care too much about onto these drives. Those files are too big to pay for online storage and also do not hold the same value to me personally.

Examples of popular external hard drive suppliers

  • Seagate
  • iOmega
  • Apple Time Machine
  • Hitachi
  • WD
  • LaCie

Online Backup

Traditional online backup services ask you to select specific folders on your PC’s hard-drive and then back them up to a server at a specified time each day. In recent times, functionality has been extended to continuous backup, a virtual drive that the user can access in Windows Explorer or Mac Finder and many providers have also added synchronization services too (often at a different price). Some leading companies are:

  • Carbonite
  • Mozy
  • iDrive

There are literally hundreds of small, no-brand businesses offering backup services with hundreds of disparate price points! It’s hard to see the woods from the trees n this market, which is why many probably stick to known brands.

Synchronization Services

Born out of backup services companies, these providers offer continuous backup to the (Cloud) server (in the same way that pure backup services do) and then automatically download all file changes to all other PCs (or Macs) that are running the same application agent. That agent is constantly requesting a file index comparison to the server, so each local drive is up-to-date in almost real-time, especially if changes are small. So far, there have been limited offerings for the business user, although I expect that to change when VMware launch “Octopus” (http://www.vmwareoctopus.com/) in summer 2012, which claims to be the “behind-the-wall” Dropbox for Enterprises.

  • Dropbox
  • Jungledisk
  • Trend SafeSync
  • Skydrive
  • Sugarsync
  • Syncplicity
  • iDrive
  • iCloud
  • SpiderOak

Cloud Content Management/ Collaboration Services

The key value proposition of these providers is typically enabling users to collaborate on documents, tasks or projects. As a side effect of keeping documents in the Cloud, the user does not need to worry about backing up those documents. I tend to regard these documents as a small sub-set of users’ storage, although it is possible to store very large amounts of data in these online apps (e.g., you can buy TB of space cheaply for Google Docs). Some providers, like Box.net, now also provide synchronization, but I am not sure how popular this feature is to its current base of users (both SMBs and Fortune 500 companies). This is where storage and collaboration markets cross. As a friend of mine said to me “Data will always grow fast.  It needs to be stored somewhere. Once you’ve stored it, the most useful thing you can do with it is share it”. That sentence may seem simplistic or tautological, but I think its frames the business opportunity well in this space. Examples include:

  • Box.net
  • SharePoint Online
  • Huddle
  • Google Docs
  • Zoho

Music/ Media Clouds

Both Apple (iCloud) and Amazon (Cloud Drive) currently offer the ability to upload 5GB of media (Amazon has a 25,000 song limit) for free that can be accessible anywhere. iCloud is a broader service that syncs contacts, iCal, apps, iBooks, emails and most things Apple. I expect that we are covered by the free 5GB for this type of data, so if you upgrade to using iMatch to upload songs that you didn’t buy at Apple, you still have to pay $28/ year. To be honest, I really don’t see the need for this if you have an agnostic Sync service and a device that can play the generic formats of music (mp3) and video (best to have a player on your device that can accommodate as many formats as vlc). Also, the beauty of a generic Sync app is that there are no hidden agendas to get you to buy their music or movies in a proprietary format (less so with Amazon!).

Secure Online Vaults

These are the least popular and most over-looked of all storage options.  Vaults are useful if you have any data that you regard as being very important in your life. My theory is that currently most people do not even think about this until disaster hits. However, everyday there are more and more breaches into the file systems of popular online services, so I would advise anyone to consider selecting the most critical data in your life (possibly data that you need to share super-securely at some point, like wills, kid’s medical histories, contracts etc.) and paying a small monthly amount as an insurance policy. This is like your premium storage level among the other levels of storage that you need as part of your strategy. Some examples include:

  • Canada Post Vault
  • Wells Fargo vSafe
  • Personal.com (just for forms)

A Critique of Other Sync Providers

I have experimented with the whole list of leading sync providers above. I do find it kind of amazing that the others still have not created a service as simple as Dropbox.

Even as Dropbox has rocketed up in popularity, the competitors have still not adjusted their approach or even their online interface. Many still provide a virtual drive instead of incorporating the root folder into My Documents and many interfaces are clunky and oddly design imho. Jungledisk even makes you buy your storage separately from Amazon S3. Some of these players also have a very complicated way for the user to manage which files are synched to which computers (this can get very convoluted). Dropbox has this figured out with their device-specific Selective Sync function. Perhaps the competitors are also doing so well too, so they do not feel the need to change or improve???

A Critique of Dropbox

While Dropbox was not the first to offer synchronization, they are definitely, imo, the only ones still to simplify it to the point where there is only a tiny learning curve left for the end user.

In my opinion, Dropbox has nearly nailed the user experience. Exceptions to this are the odd way that a user has to go through every folder online to restore any files that may have been deleted by mistake. Also, there are some performance issues when synching at about 60GB+ (I suspect that the amount of real-time meta-data that is being gathered like “upload speed”, etc. may be causing that).

They have even figured out how to outdo corporate installations of Websense (that usually blocks websites like Dropbox) – it is possible to get to the online site from behind the corporate firewall. Similarly, Dropbox has also figured out how a user can install the app without Admin user permission. This is brilliant since Dropbox starts to rock when you can access your work files on your personal PCs/ Macs (that are usually much better machines) and vice versa.

Security is the Main Concern

As you can tell by now, I am a huge supporter of Dropbox. The biggest (huge) issue though that I see with Dropbox is security/ privacy. Back on June 19th, 2011, between 1:54pm PT and 5:46pm PT, access to everybody’s accounts was possible without passwords. Here is the press announcement.

http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-20072755-281/dropbox-confirms-security-glitch-no-password-required/

I would be willing to bet $100 that the reason that our accounts were wide open was, in part, due to Dropbox employing only one encryption key for all its accounts. This approach, I imagine, is used so that Dropbox can decrypt easily on the server, deduplicate and compress user data across all accounts before re-encrypting. This has the potential to save a large amount on storage costs. If they used the (much) more secure approach of using different encryption keys for each account, then these savings would not be available. This is kinda what you get when you have a large-scale freemium model with just a few people (4%) paying for a service….you get an overly strong emphasis on cost savings Vs. security.  This is why I would switch to another more secure service if the usability were as good. I would pay more too (I am paying $200/ year right now for the 100GB service).

I also question whether there are any policies in place for vetting and monitoring staff. Again, this is the problem with buying services that deal with your data from a startup, instead of an established brand that has literally tens or even hundreds of billions of brand equity to lose if something bad happens.

The Dropbox Apology Letter

Here, Drew Houston, the founder is apologizing for the breach and offering to pay for a credit-monitoring service, should the user have had very personal financial data within her/ his files, such as credit card information.

http://loneplacebo.com/the-fallout-of-the-dropbox-security-breach/

All I can say, is think very carefully where you put your super-important information! If you don’t fully understand or even want to waste your time trying to understand the nuances of an application’s security, then pay the premium that a highly trusted brand has to mitigate against such breaches. Do you really want to trust your super-important data to a startup with a cute name that is 4 years old and run by twenty-somethings? I know, I sound like an old cranky b’ stard…but this is my personal data I am talking about, not a quick snap or preferred YouTube video on Facebook.

Now, having said that, I am willing to trust them my less-important (less sensitive) data, although I would prefer a solution that I can trust with all my data from one company at the right price (just a dream).

To summarize, I love Dropbox, but would not trust my most important data to them (for that I would use a Vault from a company with a big brand and record in security and privacy) and would just prefer the same service with higher security measures for my other stuff anyway.

My goal with this article was to help you decide which solutions (including Dropbox) you may wish to try out based on your personal data strategy/ needs and the competitive landscape across the storage and collaboration markets. Hopefully, I have given you some food for thought.

Please feel free to send me your feedback, as I may revisit and refine this in a few months time.

By Anthony Austin

Can BitCasa Succeed?

bitcasa_logo

 

Having watched the video of BitCasa from TechCrunch (http://techcrunch.com/2011/09/12/with-bitcasa-the-entire-cloud-is-your-hard-drive-for-only-10-per-month), I have concluded that I really like their ideas. I do wonder, however, if their approach can really work, in practice.

What is BitCasa claiming to be able to do? It claims to offer its users unlimited storage for just $10/ month!

How? Well, this is the interesting part…

  1. By using “Convergent Encryption” techniques to enable “secure de-duplication” of user data. What this means is that BitCasa can both encrypt your data client-side (before it leaves your PC) AND de-duplicate any data that is common across multiple users (thus making it much cheaper to store, due to the de-duped reduced amount) on its servers. I had previously thought that this was impossible.
  2. Use your PC’s hard-drive purely for local caching. BitCasa is telling us that it has an intelligent algorithm that will automatically choose which of your data out of the total stored in the BitCasa Cloud, will be copied locally and available offline.

This all sounds brilliant, however, I have a few critiques of these techniques. In the same order as above:

  1. Convergent Encryption. Not wishing to sound bitter or cynical, I cannot understand how this can really be private. Apparently, BitCasa will derive the encryption key from the data itself, meaning that two identical non-encrypted files will also look the same when encrypted, thus allowing for de-duplication! However, this means that if there is a file that is widely distributed among the BitCasa population (be it a “plan for a revolution” or just an “illegal studio-leaked release of Transformers 4”), then it is also possible to detect WHO has this file. How? Well, assuming that there is no anonymity protection from government or a clever hacker, then these entities would know who has which files simply by uploading the suspected file and comparing the resulting encrypted file with those that BitCasa users have.
  2. Mega-Caching. Now, call me old-fashioned but I still like to control what is on my hard-drive. With BitCasa, it sounds like this is largely out of my control. The caching algorithm is also causing me suspicion. Can an algorithm do any more than monitor the frequency of use of certain data? I suspect not. I think that a user will always require manual control of what is stored locally, as it may be more important for a user to have offline access to certain (self-deemed “essential”) files than being able to just get the ones that are used the most often. This is where Dropbox triumphs (a critique of Dropbox is waiting for another day soon).

So will these issues matter? Well, I don’t think everyone cares about their privacy (but soon will) and I also think BitCasa can get around the caching issue by offering a manual over-ride. So maybe they do not matter (these two brilliant claims would be more about marketing than anything tangible).

So, will BitCasa work? I can’t say yet for sure, but can they really be sustainable at $10/ month? I don’t think so.

Why buy an iPad?

iPad, iPhone, iTouch

THIS IS AN OLD POST THAT I STILL THINK IS RELEVANT

The other day (a month ago+), I finally succumbed to purchasing an iPad. What I am going to do in this blog is lead you through the steps in the evolution of my logic, in the hope that this might actually aid you in forming your own rationale for buying or not.

My initial reaction to the iPad, when it first came out (in April, 2010?), was that it was not going to be a very useful gadget. Since I already had a fully-grown laptop (macbook Pro), fast desktop Windows PC with a nice big 24 inch screen (for those tedious multi-tab spreadsheets and over-the-top graphical ppts that I constantly have to do) and a little Windows netbook for my pleasure-time, lean-back activities (i.e., surfing while watching mindless family TV), the iPad seemed redundant. What hole was this over-sized iTouch trying to fill?

My opinion largely remained unchanged until I borrowed one from my work. While playing with this iPad1 over a cold winter weekend, I convinced myself that I might use this device if I could prove to myself that it would replace my physical notebook that I use everday for work for To Dos and random thoughts. I probably tried 6 handwriting note apps and had bought 2 styli before I decided that this was going to be a stretch too far for my patience. My hand writing is terrible at the best of times and these apps/ styli just made it even more incomprehensible. So, this was not going to be my raison d’etre!

Now, here is a lesson learned, however…I did not invest enough time in playing out the other scenarios in my life that could make it very useful or pleasurable. After all, I couldn’t just buy every gadget that came onto the market…and then experiment with them…or could I (if I created a blogging business)?

So what brought me to the realization that I needed an iPad? Books! It’s almost as plain and simple as that. I just took a look at a free book in iBooks and was blown away!

In my mind, there is no better way to read anything than on an iPad (or such like-device). Having played with some eReaders, they certainly do improve the strain on the eyes with potentially larger font and lighter/ thinner payload. However, the sepia colour capabilities of iBooks matched with bright back-lighting, a double page view (in landscape) and that font control, add up to an experience that completely turns me from an almost unschooled illiterate to an avid wannabe member of the literati. Suddenly, I no longer have to endure my ADD-like intolerance for tiny text on bits of paper that are clunkily glued together – the thing you call a book. Oh, what a much more pleasurable experience it is to read on a iPad instead!

For this single reason, did I buy the iPad. Later I discovered that (beautiful) eReader apps such as Pulse or Flipboard and Magazine Readers such as Zinio also provided hetherto unkown, incipient value along a similar vein. There is simply no enough free time now for me to enjoy catching on on world events through these readers. I simply did not have the patience before for unwieldingly large newspapers or ad-filled magazines. Now, I can cut the crap and get to the meat (just to mix metaphors in quite a disturbing way).

However, that was just the start of the revolution. I then discovered that I actually preferred to watch videos on the iPad while travelling. This was quite the shock as I had previously been convinced that I needed a laptop to ensure that the screen did not fall over. Just with the purchase of the Belkin Flipblade iPad stand (http://www.belkin.com/IWCatProductPage.process?Product_Id=525853), did I discover it was far better to use the iPad for watching a movie in a confined space like a plane or train. It is such a slim device with a relatively large screen, that I now had more room for my other tech gadgets and my glass of wine and caviar! I’m not kidding, either.

Comparing my iTouch with the iPad, they are basically the same device in a different form factor. The difference size makes, means, imho, it is better to watch movies (despite the movie formatting restrictions by Apple) and read books and magazines on the iPad than the iTouch. This does not mean that you can’t enjoy the others apps (including iPod music apps) on the iPad, but these are the best uses of its features.

Since buying my iPad, I have removed many of my apps from my iTouch and focused on using it mainly as a music player (for my car and while falling asleep while traveling). No longer do I bother with videos (apart from a few music videos), read books or try to browse with my iTouch. Those activities have become almost exclusively the domain of my iPad.

So, this is why I bought the iPad, what I use it for and why it is valuable to my life. Tell me if you agree or not with my rationale.