Software Above the Level of a Single Device

Overview

The Dropbox Logo

The Dropbox Logo

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.

Comparisons

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.

Future directions

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.

References

Dropbox – Tour – Simplify your life
Wikipedia – Dropbox (service)
The Inside Story Of Tech’s Hottest Startup
Has Dropbox set the stage for a privacy revolution?
Re-examining Dropbox and its alternatives
How Dropbox sacrifices user privacy for cost savings
Dropbox Accused Of Misleading Customers On Security
Best Overall Startup Dropbox Looks To The Future
Dropbox grows 500% in just 15 months
The Future of Dropbox
Google Drive leaks suggest 5GB free storage, in-app document editing
Google “Close To” Launching Dropbox Competitor Called Google Drive
Google Drive detailed: 5 GB for free, launching next week for Mac, Windows, Android and iOS
Nearly 40% Of Facebook Users Are Mobile App Users

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12 thoughts on “Software Above the Level of a Single Device

  1. Google Drive will be really interesting! I wonder how dropbox will maintain a strong value proposition when there’s services like it but with greater integration with other apps alongside the cloud storag feature. How soon do you think before drive has reached more users than dropbox?

      • Yes, I agree that the integration aspect is the most compelling feature of Google Drive and Dropbox probably won’t be able to keep up with Google in that regard. I would predict that by the end of the year Google Drive will be the more popular alternative. Interesting video, by the way, thanks for sharing!

  2. As a frequent user of Dropbox, I really enjoy using it on a number of different platforms such as my iPhone on the Bus to view my document, my iPad at UNI to upload files from lectures and workshops, and my desktop to edit files at home.

    Its truly convenient to access, edit, and view the same files at the one location, and view files on a number of different devices.

    As more and more of my work is now made and completed out in public spaces, I depend on software such as Dropbox to help me continue working on assignments whilst I’m out.

    However, there is competition out there now that could rival what Dropbox offers such as Google Drive. I am keen to see if it could dampen interest in Dropbox as on its own, Dropbox doesn’t have other productive applications that its directly embedded to (as from what I gather at the moment).

    Also, come check out my blog which talks about the same topic as your blog. http://akklam2011.wordpress.com/

    • Yes, I think that the big advantage of using Dropbox has always been the ability of working on the same documents on different devices. The synchronisation of all your files happens in the background, so it’s just a matter of setting it up once and then it just works, almost like magic.

      Google Drive will raise this concept to a new level; now not only your data files will be living in the cloud, but the editing application will be cloud-based too (Google Docs). It will be interesting to see how other cloud storage providers, such as Dropbox, will respond to this.

      • Thanks for a well structured post. I guess my only consideration would be if the internet was unavailable or the site was down. As a non-user of Dropbox can you download the files? If you can download to files, the downside would then be the loss of synchronization. Any thoughts whether you think this is an issue and how you think they might fix it?

  3. Nice article! I use Dropbox myself and pay for 50GB of space. I have actually ported all my files to Dropbox. This is a huge advantage due to the fact they have successfully integrated their software above a single device. I am now able to view my files on both my IPad and iPhone along with my PC. However I am excited about Google Drive, and will consider this as an interesting competitor in the future. Do you use Dropbox on a daily basis? And have you tested Google Drive already?

  4. great read… the legal issues that you talked about is scaring me now :).. the different app that we are using these days have brought lots of concerns. Dropbox is a good example of software above a single device. the dropbox app is available in almost all devices and the user will have the same experience as he/she is using the app in the PC or MAC.

    I like the comparison you made between different apps that using the same function as dropbox. however, I find SugarSync which is a bit different from dropbox because as u change a file or folder in your local drive and if the folder is Marked as backup folder in your sugarsync preferences, it will automatically Sync your changes. in addition, it is almost similar to TimeMachine I use in my Mac.

    thanks for the well-structured post and for the info

  5. Dropbox is certainly a great example of this pattern. I have been using it for 2 years now and am not too worried about it being superceeded by Google Drive. All the comparisons I have seen so far have Dropbox coming out on top. The biggest loss for Dropbox is not having a music streaming app and the storage space cost. One of the most interesting things I have seen is a blog commenter saying that one of the best ways to use cloud storage is for different apps for different uses. As an example – iCloud for music and Dropbox for office/word docs.

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