Mobile

How Dropbox Could Rule a Multi-Platform World

In a bid to become ubiquitous, Dropbox unveils tools to help developers sync apps across mobile platforms.

Cloud-based file storage makes it easier to move between different Web-connected devices.

Dropbox, the fast-growing file-synching and file-sharing service, today announced new tools that could help the company become an indispensable ally to developers in an increasingly fragmented mobile ecosystem.

The growth of smartphones and tablets spawned a whole new app economy, as well as a vexing problem for app developers: how to make an app that’s running on one device, such as a game on an Android smartphone, sync up with the same game running on every other device a person may use, from iPads to Linux laptops.

Dressed like a latter-day Steve Jobs in a tight black long-sleeve sweater, blue jeans, and white sneakers, Dropbox founder and CEO Drew Houston addressed a crowd of developers, reporters, and some tech royalty (including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg) at the company’s first developer conference in San Francisco.

Houston explained the difficulties developers encounter when trying to make apps work together across platforms, saying there are “thousands of details” they must get right for it to work. “If it were easy, all of this stuff would just work,” he said. “We wouldn’t be talking about it.”

Houston introduced a new Dropbox platform, which includes a way for developers to easily allow their Android and iOS apps to sync with each other by having Dropbox do what it already does—sync and store data online—but with the structured bits of data modified within apps as you use them, rather than just for files like photos and Word documents. This way it doesn’t matter what logo is on the back of your phone, Houston said; “it just works.”

“This is a first step in a whole new way of building apps where you can have this completely seamless experience across platforms,” he said.

While Dropbox is just one of many cloud storage and file-synching services, it may have the chops and the momentum to make this ambitious plan work. Since launching in late 2008, the service has grown tremendously—it reached 100 million users in November, and has added an additional 75 million since then. Each day, users save over a billion files.

Tuesday’s event was not exactly flawless, though. After an attempt at a live demo failed, a video was played showing a simple drawing app in use on a Wacom tablet and an iPad. As an image was drawn on the Wacom tablet, it would sync up almost immediately on the iPad. If you work on the drawing while offline, Dropbox will automatically resolve conflicts once you get back online. “What it means for our users is finally some of these walls can come down,” Houston said.

It’s not just about helping developers out. If Dropbox can popularize its method of synchronizing data, we won’t just be storing pictures and PDF files in Dropbox; we’ll also be counting on it to keep our apps running smoothly—an increasingly big deal in a multi-platform world.

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