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Popular Dropbox Store-Sync-Share Cloud Service Morphing Into Middleware

API A Godsend For Partners, Götterdämmerung For Competitors

Yesterday, in a multi-part press release, Dropbox, a popular store/sync/share cloud service, announced software updates for its Apple and Android versions, a new version for Blackberry, and that, since it first published its API in May, the number of applications using it had grown to over one hundred.  The first two are hardly news at all, but a single cloud-based file management service being adopted by 100+ different software products and services is more significant than it might seem when it is buried as a by-the-way in an announcement of little interest to anybody except existing Dropbox customers and maybe Blackberry users.

Dropbox is an on-line subscription services where users can store documents, media and other kinds of files,  synchronize file copies on multiple devices, and share files with other subscribers to the service.  As such, it is very similar in function to dozens of other such services. Largely through marketing and somewhat through actual feature differences, the various services target different types of users and applications, e.g. business document management vs. personal media management or collaboration vs. backup.  Some are only browser-based, while others also provide native clients for Mac and Windows PCs, and many, especially the syncers, also run on smart phones.  And, most of them have business models where users according to the storage volume consumed or a fixed monthly charge bracketed by a storage maximum.  For capsule summaries of at least thirty Dropbox competitors, click here.

What sets Dropbox apart from the pack, though, is its transparency.  Where most of the others have dedicated user interface contexts in the form of a standalone program and/or an elaborate web page with its own menus, terminology and procedural logic, Drobox's interface on all devices, including the browser, is simply a folder that looks exactly like any other.  It has no context of its own, but rather lives within the already-established context of storage and connectivity on each device.  So, when a user takes a picture with his smart phone he can simply save it to the Dropbox folder, rather than another folders, or he can share it to Dropbox, rather than Facebook or Twitter.  In either case, Dropbox is just another choice added to the ones he already has for saving or sharing pictures.  After he saves or shares the picture, within seconds, that picture file will automatically appear in the Dropbox folder on his iPad and PC and, if the selected folder is shared by other Dropbox users, the picture will also appear in the Dropbox folders on their devices as well.  Furthermore, if, one of those people then, say, crops the picture and saves it, the altered picture will then show up in everybody's Dropbox folder on all their devices.  Because it functions as a file folder, Dropbox automatically works with any application on the user's device that uses its file system.

Dropbox adds functional value without adding any contextual overhead, and this points to an important difference between software products and cloud services.  In packaged software, there is a direct correspondence between function, context and value - every feature and function has a menu choice or dialog box through which it is selected and used, and each new version adds more value by adding more features.  Look at each incremental version of Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite for a clear example of this equation.  Cloud services don't exactly work that way.  In the cloud, value comes from reducing latency and context while increasing access and availability for any given resource, asset or workload.  The Dropbox service does this for an individual's or group's accumulation, use, and distribution of files.  It justifies its monthly subscription price by what it saves in time and trouble related to managing and using a given amount of data, not by what it adds in functional bulk.

According to Adam Gross, Dropbox's SVP of Sales and Marketing, the reason for the service's transparency goes beyond the company's desire to offer a product that is simply easy for customers to use and for the company to support.  "The goal all along was to create a universal network fabric that provides rich functionality in a shared context that users already know and understand," he said, adding, "The API was just the next logical step, and clearly the strategy is resonating with our growing list of partners who are finding amazing and creative ways to add value to their products with Dropbox."

When examining the list of Dropbox-enabled services and applications, it is clear that the API serves different purposes for different vendors.  Not surprisingly, for a number of them, it is a tactical one, simply giving their products device sync and backup capabilities that they would otherwise be pressed to add directly, often to little strategic effect.  Granted, their users must now also become Dropbox subscribers, rather than finding the added functionality native in their products, but, as Dropbox is free for users with up to 2GB under management, in most cases, that is a requirement unlikely to rankle most app users.

For others, though, Dropbox provides a new kind of "cloud memory" for consolidating, synchronizing and securing critical information and then making it available on an as-needed basis.  A good example of this is the 1Password app by Agile Web Solutions, an application for creating, storing and retrieving strong passwords for different sites and services, which uses Dropbox to synchronize the latest user's passwords between his or her different devices.

The Dropbox API is even providing the basis for new kinds of applications and services that might otherwise be much more difficult to conceive and create.  One such example is AirDropper, a clever service that lets Dropbox users send requests for files to anyone, even if the person doesn't have a Dropbox account, and enables that person to provide the requested file without using email and attachments.  The person receiving the request gets a link to the AirDropper secure web site, which lets them upload the requested file and have AIrDropper deposit in the requester's private Dropbox folder.

There are also apps that exist for the purpose of adding value to Dropbox itself, like the obviously named, Send to Dropbox, which allow subscribers to use email as still another way to get files into their Dropbox folders.  Still others use Dropbox as an integration tool, like PixelPipe, which uses Dropbox as a unified sharing interface for getting content onto virtually all mainstream social networks.  And, a number of others use it enable rich functional integration between apps on different user devices.  The variety of applications is indeed impressive.

Now, in the abstract, there is little preventing Dropbox competitors from trying to do something similar, except that most of them have been built to be apps and services, not as a universal fabric with no context of its own.  To do what Dropbox is doing, most would have to deconstruct their existing offerings to build a different kind of service that would get little leverage from their existing ones.  And so it is that most them are doomed to a protracted war of feature escalation and market attrition and consolidation, with the only kind exit being acquisition by subscriber-hungry cloud service giants for pennies on the sunk dollar.  Not pretty.  Meanwhile, Dropbox is well-positioned to grow and prosper on the strength of a head start, a clear vision, and a unique and vital ecosystem of customers and partners plugged into its network fabric.

More Stories By Tim Negris

Tim Negris is SVP, Marketing & Sales at Yottamine Analytics, a pioneering Big Data machine learning software company. He occasionally authors software industry news analysis and insights on Ulitzer.com, is a 25-year technology industry veteran with expertise in software development, database, networking, social media, cloud computing, mobile apps, analytics, and other enabling technologies.

He is recognized for ability to rapidly translate complex technical information and concepts into compelling, actionable knowledge. He is also widely credited with coining the term and co-developing the concept of the “Thin Client” computing model while working for Larry Ellison in the early days of Oracle.

Tim has also held a variety of executive and consulting roles in a numerous start-ups, and several established companies, including Sybase, Oracle, HP, Dell, and IBM. He is a frequent contributor to a number of publications and sites, focusing on technologies and their applications, and has written a number of advanced software applications for social media, video streaming, and music education.

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