In the last couple of years, there has been a very interesting trend happening regarding Internet usage and Web browsing habits: users are increasingly shifting from traditional desktop-based computer usage into the brave new world of mobile-enabled computing, where information is an ubiquitous asset that is accessible from anywhere. Services such as Twitter and Pandora are already getting the majority of their traffic from mobile devices. As of January 2012, 350 million of Facebook’s 800 million users are using mobile devices as their primary means of accessing the popular social networking service. But if that is not convincing enough, according to a 2011 study, 61% of mobile users won’t return to a site if they have trouble accessing it from their phone. In this climate, it is self-evident that catering for the desktop PC using crowd only is not sufficient anymore; in fact, that would be quite a disastrous move for any new web-oriented start-up company. Services must fully take the needs of mobile users into consideration, treat them as first-class citizens and tailor the applications to meet their specific needs—which is exactly what has been happening in the last two years or so. With mobile computing becoming so widespread, one can never make assumptions about the devices customers are going to access a particular service with, and this is exactly the driving force behind the trend of applications rising above the level of a single device. Numerous services have spawned to solve problems that belonged strictly to the desktop-only territory before, such as Dropbox, a Web-based file hosting service that uses networked storage to enable users to store and share files over the Internet. The service is available on a wide range of desktop (Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux) and mobile platforms (Android, iPhone, iPad, Windows Phone 7, WebOs, Blackberry), thus being a prime example of the “software rising above the desktop-PC-only-world” concept.
Dropbox offers 2 GB of free online storage for all non-paid users, but storage quotas of 50 GB, 100 GB, 1 TB or more are also available for paying customers. An important point to note is that free and paid accounts sport exactly the same functionality and features, except for the amount of storage space offered. The Dropbox client—available for a wide range of operating systems and devices—makes the process of file sharing super simple: just by drag-and-dropping files into a designated folder, the files get uploaded to the user’s online storage and then get synced to any other of the user’s devices that are also Dropbox-enabled. There is also a possibility of uploading files manually by using a traditional web-browser or sending files to Dropbox via Gmail. All this extra functionality means that Dropbox is far more than just simple online storage: it’s great advantage service over other storage services is the transparent and painless content synchronisation mechanism across a heterogenous array of operating systems and devices, and it’s built-in revision history (also known as version control) on all uploaded files. For added security, it uses SSL (Secure Socket Layer) communication for all data transfers and stored the uploaded files in a AES-256 encrypted format.
Potential legal and ethical issues
In May 2011, there was a scandal about unclear language being used in the Dropbox terms of service which could imply that Dropbox may hold ownership to all uploaded customer data. As a result of this, Dropbox completely revised the data ownership section of their terms of service in July 2011. An even more serious concern was raised by online privacy researches Cristopher Soghoian in April 2011 about Dropbox’s dubious file deduplication practices. In short, deduplication means that, in order to save costly storage space, if two users backup exactly the same file, Dropbox will store a single copy of it. While Dropbox claimed that there were no security implications to this, security experts thought otherwise: deduplication is only possible if the service has access to the private keys used to encrypted user data, which makes the whole encryption mechanism rather pointless and trivial to circumvent. The bottom line is, if the company didn’t have access to the encryption keys, it would be technically impossible for them to detect duplicate files. By having access to the private keys, the service provider could be forced to hand out private data if for example faced by a court order. Alternatively, an intruder who gets access to the private keys (or even a malicious employee) could potentially have access to any user data stored on their backend infrastructure.
Just in two short years, Dropbox have grown from a respectable 1 million people user base to a staggering 25 million users with over 200 millions of files being uploaded each day. The main appeal of the service (apart from being free) lies in it’s simplicity that enables even non-technical users to use it with relative ease. Dropbox is planning to capitalise on exactly that, broading their customer base from computers, tablets and smartphones to everyday appliances such as cameras, TVs and even cars that could benefit from an ubiquitous, synchronised online cloud storage. Truth to be told, there is already some quite stiff competition from Apple with their iCloud service, Microsoft’s SkyDrive, Amazon Cloud Drive, SugarSync and the long-awaited launch of Google Drive—offering 5 GB storage space and in-place Google Docs editing capabilities—is on the horizon as well. Who will come out as the dominant player of such a fierce competition is quite unclear at the moment, but it is safe to assume that the customers will surely benefit from it.
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