Cloud computing is yet another name for services that have existed for a really long time. Here’s the 2008 IEEE Internet Computing quote regarding Cloud Computing:
“Cloud Computing is a paradigm in which information is permanently stored in servers on the Internet and cached temporarily on clients that include desktops, entertainment centers, table computers, notebooks, and wall computers, handhelds, sensors, monitors.”
Information stored on servers? Temporary caching? Holy fuck. You mean like those email servers and clients I’ve been running for 15 YEARS?
The innovation in cloud computing happened years ago. It happened when some bright engineer was trying, for the 185th time, to draw the Internet on a slide, and thought, It’s this big, huge, amorphous thing that lacks definition. It’s a… cloud.
That’s when the magic happened. That’s when the name mattered. When it was first used to eloquently and visually describe an idea that lacked mental definition.
Everything that has been happening since then is marketing and wishful thinking. It’s those marketing nerds getting paid too much money to rename ideas we’ve already had. Innovation doesn’t come when we give our ideas new names; it comes when the fundamental idea quietly evolves. Innovation often happens silently — not by what you say, but what you do.
My use case for the cloud hasn’t changed in years. I want a single folder sitting somewhere in the cloud that I can transparently access from any computer… anywhere. I’m not greedy; I’ll make it even simpler: I’ll only put documents in that folder. No applications, no preferences, just my well-defined documents.
I’ve been trying creatively-named solutions to this use case for a decade. This is how my technology investigations play out:
- Configure the bits
- Give the solution a whirl three times
- Never use it again.
Fact is, getting me to change my information workflow is pretty hard. I’m a creature of habit and efficiency. While I will compulsively give any new idea or tool a try, an application or service needs to fulfill strict requirements.
Just to grab me, you have to:
- Make it look and feel like magic.
- Work flawlessly in the first 10 minutes. If you can’t survive 10 minutes of critical analysis, I’m gone.
- Provide additional, unexpected awesomeness.
Like I said, it’s tough, and chances are that even if an application meets all of these requirements, I’m going to throw it out because I don’t trust it.
I trust Dropbox. Here’s why.
Dumb versus Smart
There are two approaches to cloud storage: dumb and smart.
A dumb cloud does just what you’d expect. You attach an external drive or you mount a network directory. It’s there. It does nothing unless you remember to manually copy stuff yourself.
A smart cloud combines the external storage with a scheme to do your copying or back-up for you. The idea is that as you change files locally, these changes are detected and sent off to the cloud. Sounds simple enough, right? Brace yourself.
Remember my use case: a single folder sitting somewhere in the cloud that I can transparently access from any computer… anywhere. The key word in that sentence is transparent, and a tool’s inability to be transparent is why applications in this space have been a study in failure. I’ll explain.
The fail begins with you and your two computers: a portable and a desktop machine. You edit one file on your desktop machine. Fine, the bits get sent to the cloud. Then, you make a different change on the SAME file on your portable, which is NOT on the network. Two hours later, you bring that portable onto the network and what happens? You’ve got two different versions of that file which both contain original work. Whatever cloud sync tool you are using will likely ask you: “Hey, both of these files have changed. This one was edited this morning and this one was edited two hours later. Which one do you want to keep?”
It’s a fair question. Sync is trying to be useful, sync is trying to be helpful, but sync is giving you a choice, and while you are generally good at choices, you will screw up. And when you do you will never, ever blame yourself, you will blame sync.
You will twitter: SYNC FUCKING OVERWROTE MY CHANGES, when all sync was doing was what it was told. See, sync will happily screw you if instructed to do so. By you.
Even though it’s my fault, data loss is a colossal disaster in my universe and that means once I figure out data was overwritten, I will not cease my irrational swearing until whatever tool responsible is completely eradicated from my system.
Yet, it is my fault. I chose a solution that was too smart. What I need is for my smart clouds to be dumb.
Dumbing it down with Dropbox
There is nothing new about the idea behind Dropbox. Even the name shows little in terms of innovation. Before I explain how Dropbox gained my trust by solving the sync problem, let’s talk about how it grabbed me.
Is it magic? After a simple install and easy account sign-up on the Mac, you end up with a new menu extra. Choosing ‘Open your Dropbox’ reveals the directory structure of your Dropbox and you’re off. Doing what? I don’t know — whatever it is you do. Folders and files thrown into the Dropbox folder are silently synced with the cloud. On the Mac, unless you look closely, it’s not even clear what’s going on. I had to fire up my portable and set up Dropbox on a second machine to confirm that it was actually doing anything.
The magic of Dropbox is that it doesn’t ask you to think about what you do. You care about one thing: do I have access to the most recent version of my files? And with Dropbox, yes, you do. Wherever you are, so are your files.
A flawless 10 minutes. Once I convinced myself that Dropbox was actually doing something, I pushed it. I dumped a large Keynote into Dropbox on one machine and then jumped to another machine and deleted a different file. How long until everything was reconciled? It wasn’t instant, the Keynote copy was limited by bandwidth, but it worked flawlessly. And besides, you don’t need instant access to your files because you can’t be in two places at once. What you want is to never be bothered by the fact that your files are in the cloud. Dropbox is designed to never get in your way… even when you do something stupid. More on this is in a second.
Unexpected awesomeness. While it wasn’t in my first 10 minutes, the unexpected awesomeness came when a friend asked for a presentation that wasn’t mail server-friendly. He emailed me a link to a shared Dropbox folder, and when I clicked on it, the folder was immediately integrated with my existing Dropbox hierarchy. That’s right, I can construct a complex shared hierarchy in the cloud and you know what that complex collaborative beast looked like? My familiar directory structure.
It’s these types of design decisions where trust begins.
Trust begins when I can see the design intention of an application. What in NetNewsWire, for example, is the end result of endless fretting over every design angle regarding reading feeds. What I expect is that when I’m stumped, its author, Brent Simmons, has not only thought about why I’m stumped, he’s already provided the right feature configured in precisely the right manner to circumvent my stumpedness.
When I use Microsoft Word, I see corporate intent. I see how different warring internal groups tugged the UI to and fro for a decade. I see the intern who did that one feature four years ago. I see a land of misfit toys in the features that haven’t been touched in years.
When I’m using Word, I keeping seeing Word, and I don’t see what I should be seeing, which is what I am writing. When I’m using Dropbox, I don’t even know that I’m using it because it is designed be transparent.
The Screw-Me Scenario
How does Dropbox solve the screw-me sync scenario? To date, Dropbox hasn’t said a thing to me. It hasn’t given me a single decision to screw up. Dropbox is very smart because it never asks you a thing about sync or any file operation. This is the brilliance: Dropbox knows that any question is a chance to make a wrong decision. And a chance to make a wrong decision is a chance to erode trust.
Yes, you can create the conflict scenario. When it occurs, Dropbox quietly creates a conflict file in your folder and lets you figure out what to do. See, Dropbox isn’t going to ask because that’s not the model. That’s not the design. The Dropbox flow is: “We’re not going to bother you with sync because we’re just keeping track of you changing stuff and your stuff is only changing when you change it and there is only one of you. If there’s a problem, you’ll figure it out when you’re good and ready”. It’s not elegant; I still have to eventually go and clean up the mess, but the more you trust a tool, the less you care about the edge cases.
Dropbox is not dumb. In fact, Dropbox is quite smart because it lets me be dumb.
And I’m dumb. Two weeks ago, I sat down to put the final touches on a presentation. I fired up the portable, looked in the usual Dropbox location and it was empty. Ok, well, I saved it to my desktop, right? Ok, no. Maybe another location inside Dropbox? Ok, no. I can taste it’s-deleted-forever adrenalin in the back my mouth now.
Spotlight reveals nothing and I’m starting to blame Dropbox now, so I fire up their web interface, where I discover they keep track of each discrete file operation, and it looks like last night I deleted the presentation in a fit of psychotic folder cleanliness. But here in the Dropbox web interface is every single version of the file that I saved, as well as the ability to restore them.
Click. Restore. And I’m saved.
And that’s smart.