Extend the Web with Dropbox

A web tool and a desktop application all rolled into one utility, Dropbox appears to have addressed an issue that has long plagued computer users — synchronization. Developers from many of the big names in this industry have tried and failed at synchronization. In a way, it has been the holy grail of mobile computing, And yet, none of the big names were able to give users an acceptable solution.

Then Dropbox hit the scene.

Simple, hassle free syncing, backup and sharing.

Simple, hassle free syncing, backup and sharing.

Available on Windows, OS X and Linux, Dropbox is an answer to users everywhere. What exactly is it? Simply put, it’s a web application that has great desktop clients to install locally that sync your data to the web. Here’s how the Dropbox team describes their creation:

Dropbox is the easiest way to store, sync, and, share files online.

And that’s a simple and well defined explanation of a tool that shares the same characteristics.

Overview

To start off, there are several levels of Dropbox access. The first plan is the free plan — it offers a nice 2 GB of space. But the free plan is also extendable by referrals. Get your friends, coworkers and family members to sign up with a referral code and you can earn up to an extra 3 GBs of space. And 5 GB is a good bit of space for a free solution.

After that, you can choose from 3 levels of paid plans:

Storage with Dropbox is a reasonable price.

Storage with Dropbox is a reasonable price.

Overall, these are fairly reasonable prices for what you get. But for a lot people, the free plan is enough to get by — especially when you maximize on the referrals.

Once you decide on the storage space that fits your needs, you can examine what the application can do for you. Dropbox focuses on four things and it does each of them really well.

  • File Syncing
  • Remote Backup
  • File Versioning
  • File Sharing

These items may seem to overlap, and they do. But many solutions have attempted to implement only a couple of these features — Dropbox does an amazing job of all four. Let’s look at how.

Getting Started

As the Dropbox web interface nicely illustrates, getting started with the application is dead simple. Install the client on your computer, drop in some files, then watch them sync. Now go install the client on all of your other computers and after syncing there, access all your files on each machine.

All aspects of this utility are nicely designed.

All aspects of this utility are nicely designed.

This nice thing here is that you can run Dropbox on computers with different operating systems. As long as you have applications that can open all your files, compatibility issues should be a thing of the past. My past place of employment was Windows only, and thanks to Dropbox, I had absolutely no problems sharing files between my PC and my Mac at home.

Technology is changing so fast these days that I think we’re often numb to new products and services. But the ability to painlessly access our files on multiple machines with different operating systems should be not minimized — the Dropbox developers deserve all the credit for finally providing users with a simple yet effective solution to this problem.

Backups, File Versions and Your Friends

The bits above cover the first aspect of Dropbox — file syncing. But the other aspects of this tool are equally important and impressive in execution.

Keeping Your Data Safe

Let’s say your primary laptop dies. Completely. No worries, your files — at least the ones you dropped into Dropbox — are backed up online. Simply rebuild your machine and sync again. Everything goes back to the way you want it. Even if you’re without internet access, if you have more than one computer synced to your Dropbox account, you can get the important files off of a secondary machine until you’re back online.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Dropbox be your one and only plan of attack when it comes to backing up your files. For one, the free plan is much too small for most people to do that. Daily backups to secondary storage device are still needed. But Dropbox can be used to keep all the important bits of data and media that you need most often always present where you are.

My personal solution is this — I keep all of my media (pictures and music) on my local machine only. As a Mac user, I backup every 2 hours to an external drive via Time Machine and then do a weekly full copy to another external drive. This gives me incremental backups and a full clone of my hard drive always on hand.

But all of my working files are located in my 5 GBs of space on Dropbox. Whether I’m at home, on someone else’s computer or on my iPod Touch, I can access what I need.

File Versioning

As good of a job that Dropbox does at keeping things in sync and error free, there are times when a file gets corrupted. This is especially true with shared folders (see below) and two people editing the same file at the same time. But no problem — Dropbox can handle that as well.

When you have a corrupted file, simply right click on the file in question and select the ‘View Previous Versions …’ option in the Dropbox menu. This results in your browser opening to the Dropbox web interface with a listing of all the versions of that file. From there you can select the version you need and select Restore.

When you need it, multiple versions of every file will save your day.

When you need it, multiple versions of every file will save your day.

The file is updated to the correct version on all synced computers. Priceless.

Sharing Your Files

And the last main feature of Dropbox is file sharing. How is this done? Simply by selecting the folder (sharing is by folder, not by file) you want to share and then inviting the desired friends, family members or coworkers with whom you wish to share. Again, you will be redirected to the web interface and given instructions on how to invite other users.

File sharing is quite easy to manage.

File sharing is quite easy to manage.

Once you’ve invited the other folks, the sharing setting are viewable on the web interface. You can see from the screenshot that you get a nicely summarized view of the details of the folder.

Web Interface Application

As you can see from the details above, Dropbox relies a lot on the web interface for some of the main features. That’s what allows them to integrate so nicely with the desktop operating system and still give such well implemented features. When you want to work with you files, you do it locally on your desktop. But when you need to access the features of the tool itself, you are redirected to the web interface.

It doesn’t appear this way at first, but at the heart, Dropbox is a web application. But it’s a web application that has killer desktop clients which give you access to what you store in the web. File revisions, control over file sharing, web galleries — all of this is accessed and controlled on the web site itself.

Wrap Up

Out of all the online sync tools I’ve ever used, Dropbox is both the simplest and yet most robust. It takes nothing to start using it, and it has never had an issue or messed up my files. It’s one of my absolute favourite pieces of software.

Stay tuned later this week and I’ll share some of the more creative ways to put Dropbox to use.