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Dropbox: A Collaborator’s Dream

I am in love. Well, maybe not love. After all, I don’t want my wife to get jealous of a computer application, but I’ve found that in the few weeks since I’ve downloaded it, Dropbox has become an important part of my computing environment.

Dropbox is similar to another tool called SugarSync. They both back up select folders on your Mac or Windows PC to a remote server. Both can also synchronize those folders across a variety of other computers. (See “SugarSync Sweetens Online Syncing,” 2008-08-30.)

On the surface, SugarSync seems more sophisticated. For instance, it has an actual iPhone app as well as a Windows Mobile phone application, whereas Dropbox offers only a Web interface for the iPhone and other smartphones. With SugarSync you can select which folders to monitor, while Dropbox synchronizes only a single folder called “Dropbox.” Yet while SugarSync focuses solely on backup and synchronization, Dropbox also keeps collaboration in mind.

When you install Dropbox, it creates a special Dropbox folder in your home directory. You have the option of locating it elsewhere on your computer, and you can move it later if you choose. Dropbox also adds a special Dropbox icon in the menu bar (or in the System Tray in Windows), offering easy access to the Dropbox folder, the Web interface, and several Dropbox commands. Plus, it adds a special Dropbox menu item to the Finder’s contextual menu.

Aside from those minimal interface items, Dropbox is almost invisible. The Dropbox folder operates like any other folder in the Finder, with a significant twist: When you put a file in your Dropbox folder, it is automatically synchronized with the Dropbox server.

Dropbox also provides a Web interface that enables you to download files, delete them, update them, or even upload newer files using any modern Web browser. Changes are reflected in your Dropbox folder.

You can subscribe to this folder and download it to any other Mac, Windows, or Linux machine. Any changes you make on a subscribed computer are automatically synchronized with the server and, accordingly, to any other computer subscribed to the Dropbox. So far, this doesn’t seem to do anything that SugarSync doesn’t already do. However, in the immortal words of Ron Popeil, “But wait! There’s more!”

Like Time Machine, Dropbox doesn’t simply synchronize your files, it versions them. Did you make a bunch of changes you now regret? Don’t worry; Dropbox enables you to revert to an older revision. What if you accidentally delete a document? No problem, Dropbox keeps a backup of deleted documents.

Enabling Collaborators to Drop In — However, the feature that really won me over was the capability to allow other Dropbox users to share folders inside my Dropbox. Simply select any folder in your Dropbox and invite the Dropbox users with whom you want to share it. When these users accept your invitation, they will see your shared folder in their own Dropbox. Like any other folder in their Dropbox, they have full rights to view, modify, delete, or add any files to this shared folder. You see any change they make immediately.

If granting other people the power to modify your documents sounds a bit scary, don’t forget that Dropbox versions everything. If you don’t like the changes your collaborators make, you can always revert to a previous version. Dropbox acts like your own private wiki, enabling multiple users to contribute changes. However, unlike a wiki, you aren’t limited to a text-based environment. You can collaborate on spreadsheets, images, and even entire Web sites.

Before Dropbox, I would mail documents back and forth between people. There would often be confusion as to who had the latest revision of a document. We’d have to make changes gingerly to ensure everyone agreed on them, and it would sometimes take a few weeks to make even minor modifications. It was a confusing and messy process. But now with Dropbox, everyone on the team automatically has the latest version of any given document. We also no longer worry about making changes without first getting everyone else’s approval. We now plow on ahead. If someone makes a change that others don’t like, we can always revert the document back to the previous version. Collaboration is much faster, and we can now accomplish in days what it used to
take weeks to finish.

Other Collaborative Capabilities — A few other features in Dropbox enhance the collaborative process. Sometimes I need to share a document that is too large to send via instant messaging, or even email. Your Dropbox folder contains a special folder called Public. Any file placed in this Public folder gets its own URL. (You can get this URL via the Dropbox item in the contextual menu). Now, all you have to do is send this URL (via instant messaging or email), and the receiver can retrieve the document through a Web browser. They don’t even need a Dropbox account. For example, here’s a picture of my kitty. (Aww… isn’t he cute?)

And what would a piece of Web 2.0 software be without the capability to share photos? Inside your Dropbox is another special folder called Photos. All folders you place inside this Photos folder get their own URLs and become their own Web-based photo gallery. You can have an unlimited number of these Web-based galleries. Place photos inside your gallery folders, and share them with your friends. For example, here are some snapshots from my trip to Austin. Flickr it isn’t, but it’s simple to use.

Dropbox, like SugarSync, enables you to synchronize your files between multiple computers. However, Dropbox goes farther with its collaborative features. By sharing a folder inside your Dropbox, you create your own wiki-like area with your fellow Dropbox users. Also, unlike SugarSync, Dropbox also works on Linux and integrates with the Gnome Desktop and the Nautilus file browser just like it does with the Mac OS X Finder.

Dropbox is currently available as a free beta, which gives you up to 2 GB of storage. You can upgrade the capacity to 50 GB for either $9.99 per month or $99 per year.

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