It could be among the most obvious business plans ever: offer to store people’s files online so they can access them anywhere.
The failure of any mainstream computing company to meet that simple need has left a gap now being ably filled by one of Silicon Valley’s fastest-growing startups, Dropbox, a three-year old company reportedly valued at close to $4 billion.
Free software from the San Francisco–based company supplies a “magic folder” into which users can place photos, spreadsheets, and other documents. Stored centrally in Dropbox servers, those files are then automatically synchronized across all of a person’s computers and mobile devices. Folders can be shared between Dropbox users, so when one person adds a file, it instantly appears in another person’s folder. The software eliminates the need to e-mail files between computers or carry data on portable thumb drives.
“Storing and sharing stuff easily is one of those things that was going to be fixed any day now for the last 20 years,” says Drew Houston, 28, who co-founded Dropbox with Arash Ferdowsi, who is 26.
The company, which claims 25 million users, this year reportedly raised $200 million in new funding from investors. Houston says the money will help achieve his goal of turning Dropbox into a universal “data store” connected to the growing array of mobile computers, TVs, and mobile apps that people use. “We’re actually solving a very big problem: we’re building the Internet file system that everything will plug into,” says Houston.
Allowing people to host and share files in the cloud is more complex than it may appear. It is, says Houston, “a serious science project,” whose challenges include the complex “air traffic control” needed to synchronize the more than 12 million files that users upload or update every hour. The company’s engineers had to build software to move all those files around quickly, and needed to design Dropbox’s software to cope with the idiosyncrasies of different devices, from PCs running Windows to iPhones.