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Dropbox Offers a Way to Free Data from Mobile Apps

A new feature makes it easy for mobile apps to sync data—and poses direct competition to Apple’s iCloud.
February 15, 2013

Dropbox is best known for providing a “magic folder” that 100 million people use to synchronize files across different computers. But the company’s cofounder and CEO, Drew Houston, has long talked of larger ambitions, telling MIT Technology Review in 2012 that he was setting out to build “a fabric that ties together all devices, services, and apps … the Internet’s file system” (see “Drew Houston Simplifies the Cloud”). A new feature released with little fanfare last week provides new evidence that the company is working toward that vision. It also pitches the company into more direct competition with Apple.

That feature, called the Sync API, allows mobile apps to save data to a user’s Dropbox account so that the app can be synched across multiple devices. If developers embrace the programming interface, using mobile apps might no longer mean leaving your personal files scattered among different devices. The Sync API could also erode some of the restrictions imposed by the competing mobile “ecosystems” of Apple and Google by making it easier to switch between them without leaving any data behind. For example, someone who had been using an image editing app for Apple’s iPad could install the same app on an Android tablet and find the edited photos on the new device.

Apple already offers similar functionality though iCloud, enabling apps to sync data across mobile devices, laptops, and desktops. However, unlike Dropbox, iCloud doesn’t give people easy access to the data it syncs through a file browser or online, and data cannot be synched to Android devices.

“Our mission is to let people access their stuff wherever they are,” says Sean Lynch, a product manager at Dropbox. “We’re not picky—we want that whichever device you’re using.” He says helping mobile apps plug into his company’s service is an important part of that mission.

Once an app that makes use of the Sync API is given a user’s Dropbox login details, any data saved by the app can be accessed in the Dropbox folder on the user’s PC or through the service’s online interface. Likewise, files can be sent to an app by placing them in the folder it creates inside a user’s Dropbox account. Apps are not able to access data outside that folder.

Previously, relatively few mobile apps integrated with Dropbox because its API was intended for use by websites rather than apps, says Lynch. That meant each developer had to essentially reinvent much of Dropbox’s functionality—for example, finding a way to ensure that data gets synched even when mobile devices lose their Internet connection.

“Sync is a hard thing to get completely correct,” says Brian Smith, a lead engineer at Dropbox. Although Dropbox wasn’t the first company to offer file synching for PCs, its rise to dominance is often attributed to the way it’s obsessively chased down many small technical problems to make the technology perform flawlessly under any conditions, on any device. “The Sync API allows iOS and Android developers to focus on the core aspects of their app and leave the complexities of working across platforms to us,” says Smith.

Although Smith and Lynch acknowledge that their new feature is similar to aspects of Apple’s iCloud, they say they didn’t intend to position the companies as rivals. “We’re focused on our strengths, which are cross-platform and easy-to-use capabilities,” says Smith. Both iCloud’s and Dropbox’s services would probably be very different today had Dropbox’s cofounders accepted Steve Jobs’s offer to buy their company in 2009.

But Ed Barton, an analyst at Strategy Analytics who follows developments in digital media, believes that Dropbox’s leaders are carefully planning how to compete with Apple. “Dropbox is wary of the threat posed by digital media lockers such as iCloud,” says Barton. He found in a recent survey that Apple and Dropbox are the two cloud services most used by U.S. consumers, with 27 percent and 17 percent of just over 2,000 respondents, respectively. Allowing people to control their content across devices from different companies provides one way for Dropbox to stand out, he says.

However, he adds, Dropbox must also respond to moves by larger competitors to offer cloud storage services that double as media players for music, photos, and movies. For example, a movie industry group recently launched the Ultraviolet service, which enables people to store and stream digital copies of films, and Amazon and Google both store and stream music files. These are areas where Dropbox’s features are less advanced.

Dropbox recently bought a music streaming startup but has not revealed how its technology will be used (see “Can Dropbox Evolve from File Store to Music Player?”), and it’s also upgraded its photo-sharing features. “Dropbox has improved how it handles media files,” says Barton. “I expect to see further innovation on this front.”

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