Practically since the launch of Google’s Gmail service, rumors have abounded that the search firm would offer a generic Internet storage service called Google Drive. On 24 April 2012, the company finally did, providing free access with a Google account, but without requiring an invitation or labeling the service as “beta.” Apparently hearing the beat of the same drummer approaching, Microsoft also significantly upgraded its SkyDrive system a day earlier on 23 April 2012. But will either offer a significant advantage over the popular Dropbox service?
Google Drive works very much like Dropbox, focusing on a single folder (Mac OS X and Windows) and enabling you to choose which subfolders you sync on given computers. An iOS app is coming, and Android software is already available. Your Google Drive can also sync your documents from Google Docs, although you still need a Web browser and a live Internet connection to edit them. (You can view Google Docs files in an offline, read-only mode using the Google Chrome Web browser. For another way of getting local copies of Google Docs files in usable formats, see “Back Up Your Google Data with CloudPull,” 6 March 2012.)
Google Drive includes 5 GB of free storage, separate from storage used for Gmail (which was bumped to 10 GB) and the Picasa photo-sharing service (which gives you 1 GB). More storage may be purchased, starting at $2.50 per month for an additional 25 GB available to both Google Drive and Picasa. These pricing plans are new; the previous yearly plans are no longer available, though anyone with an existing yearly plan can keep it active.
Meanwhile, a certain Redmond-based Google competitor coincidentally announced updates to its five-year-old SkyDrive storage and sync service. SkyDrive previously offered decent Mac and iOS support, but didn’t provide direct file-system integration and lacked a number of useful features.
SkyDrive used to comprise two separate services: sync, called Windows Live Mesh, that enabled both cloud-based automated file synchronization and peer-to-peer file copying among your computers; and Web-accessible storage. Microsoft allowed 25 GB total of free cloud storage, 5 GB of which could be used for cloud-based sync among computers. Peer-to-peer sync has been dropped, and new SkyDrive accounts receive 7 GB of free storage.
The update on several platforms (Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, Windows, iOS, and Windows Phone) brings Dropbox-like folder and synchronization features. SkyDrive also enables you to access remote files on your other SkyDrive-enabled computers. That’s a rather nice addition, and something found in few sync services; it’s typically part of remote screen access systems, like LogMeIn.
To make up for the drop in storage to existing users, those who registered before 22 April 2012 and have less than 4 GB stored can upgrade to 25 GB by clicking a link on the SkyDrive site after logging in. Those registered users who already stored more than 4 GB have automatically received a bump to 25 GB of free storage. Additional storage may be purchased starting at $10 per year for an additional 20 GB of storage.
It’s impossible to compare iCloud directly with either Google Drive or SkyDrive (or with Dropbox) because iCloud doesn’t allow arbitrary file storage and syncing, nor does it have any sharing features. Rather, iCloud syncs data between specific Mac and iOS apps, and provides centralized storage for Apple services like iTunes Match, Photo Stream, and me.com email.
On the other hand, Google Drive and SkyDrive compete directly with Dropbox, which includes 2 GB of storage with free accounts and offers paid accounts starting at $10 per month for 50 GB. However, as noted in “Get More Storage for Testing Dropbox Camera Uploads,” 29 March 2012 and “Dropbox Referral Bonuses Doubled to 500 MB, Retroactively,” 4 April 2012, using a new camera upload service (just out of beta) can bring a free account to 5 GB of permanent storage, while referrals can boost a free account to as much as 16 GB. (The overall combined limit of additional storage for free accounts is 16 GB.)
The comparison to Dropbox is apt, not just because Dropbox beat both Microsoft and Google to the market by years with this sort of offering, but because of the tens of millions of people already using Dropbox, and the way in which its integration and features define what’s expected from these and a dozen other Internet sync/storage services. How Google Drive and SkyDrive will fare against Dropbox remains to be seen, not so much because of the feature set or the amount of storage provided, but because Dropbox is riding the network effect wave — since so many people use Dropbox happily to share files with colleagues, it’s hard to see what the incentive would be for switching to a largely similar competitor.
Dropbox also isn’t sitting still. Simultaneously with the Google and Microsoft announcements, Dropbox finalized a feature previously available only in beta — read-only links to any file in your Dropbox folder, regardless of which subfolder it’s in. The feature is great for sending a file in a shared folder to someone who needs to see it, but doesn’t need to edit it. The update also adds the capability to share entire folders’ contents, and to revoke publicly shared links.