Tech Life Make it look and feel like magic

Dumbing Down the Cloud

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.

Anywhere. Transparently.

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:

  • Discover
  • Install
  • 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:

  1. Make it look and feel like magic.
  2. Work flawlessly in the first 10 minutes. If you can’t survive 10 minutes of critical analysis, I’m gone.
  3. 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.

41 Responses

  1. Sigivald 15 years ago

    So in other words, it’s a well-integrated version control system with a minimal (good!) interface.

    That sounds like the right way to handle a file store, yes.

  2. I think you’ve completely missed the point (and IEEE have to, IMHO).

    The “cloud” is about introducing a new layer of abstraction where there wasn’t a commonly accepted one before.

    Once upon a time, we developed our server-side applications on a software stack that had many, if not most, of the assumptions of being a unitary system: i.e. on top of Unix, Linux or Windows.

    For large-scale server-side web software, as exemplified by Google, Amazon etc., this isn’t enough: you need multiple servers working together. Similarly, you can’t just have a single database server; the full relational model doesn’t scale either. Partition-tolerence, availability, consistency: choose any two, etc.

    These large-scale systems are the hitherto unprecedented new thing, and it’s the bundling together of the solved problems into a new kind of platform that constitutes the new abstraction layer, the “cloud”.

    What you’re talking about sounds a lot more like Microsoft Mesh, which seems to be something else entirely (though I can’t be sure – it’s been far too mushily defined for my taste). As you say, sync is (seems to be) a large element, but there’s been a fair amount of precedent which suggests that it (sync) doesn’t work so well.

    But that’s quite aside from the viability of EC2, AppEngine, etc. as development platforms for “cloud” applications, i.e. distributed apps that scale a lot easier than the old-fashioned way (i.e. building out with your own hardware, solving all the same problems in a new and differently buggy way).

  3. Rob Winchester 15 years ago

    I got a few paragraphs in and thought, “I can’t wait to tell him about DropBox!”

    It’s worked invisibly for me since Day One.

  4. Aha! I was looking for exactly this type of thing yesterday.

    I’m going to try it immediately.

  5. Mark Roddy 15 years ago

    I couldn’t agree more the hype of the “cloud”.

    @Sigivald: I was thinking the same thing about the DropBox description. The only thing difference between that and a Subversion repository would be automatic commits and a snazzy web interface.

  6. I appreciate the Brian Kelly post above because I think the backlash on cloud hype is misplaced, or, at least, unnecessary.

    Major industry disruptions do happen when industry-wide underlying cost structures are slashed drastically.

    The cloud eliminates Capex and slashes Opex.

    Disruption will come, seeded by a torrent of new innovation (even if in continuous incremental form).

    It feels like 1995 all over again. (you know, the internet had been around for decades but things came together to unleash massive disruption and new innovation.)

  7. Glenn Rempe 15 years ago

    Hi. While I am a dropbox user, I did run into an issue which you or some users may face. Dropbox can only manage a certain number of files before it reaches an internal limit and sucks up 100% of your CPU. At this point it is certainly not transparent. I reached this limit by putting a directory of Git repositories on Dropbox, hoping to keep my source files synced between desktop and laptop. Git repos have many many small files embedded within them.

    The thread is here:

    And the email followup from Arash (their CTO) while being very helpful and responsive, was unable to resolve the issue.

    He said “at the moment anything >100k files causes some pretty serious performance/memory issues. the symlink situation didn’t help things either :). it looks like we’re going to have to add a warning to all paying users that dumping >100k files isn’t advisable (and potentially place a hard limit on it as well until all our performance improvements are in).”

    They have not yet released a new client version which resolves this. So keep this in mind when storing things like Apple bundles which contain many small files internal to the bundle structure, disk images, or folders with many small files. 100K files adds up quick (especially with a 50GB dropbox account).


  8. Dropbox has worked flawlessly for me, and I’ve put a bunch of people on to it. It still has some problems with the interface (hidden under contextual menus etc) but it’s the best solution out there by some way. Makes .Mac efforts look very poor in comparison.

    Love the versioning too. Go Dropbox!

  9. I disagree that “Cloud Computing” has been around for 15 years. That’s true only in the vaguest sense of Cloud Computing.

    What cloud computing really is is this: the ability to launch a program in a clustered environment, where you don’t need to care about CPU usage, disk usage, bandwidth usage, scaling, etc. It’s all handled “magically” behind the scenes for you, and you can focus on creating applications that are available, all the time, from any internet device, and can scale up to any level.

    Have Amazon and the others have achieved this perfectly yet? No. But that’s logistics. 😉

    An email server is not cloud computing. It’s just an email server. Dropbox — that’s cloud computing. Don’t worry about how much bandwidth or storage space you’re using. (And for Dropbox developers — don’t worry about how much our customers require, it’ll be there, just charge accordingly.)

    Cloud computing is much more than marketing, it’s a real thing, and it’s a big deal.


  10. Git is my Dropbox.

  11. Justin D 15 years ago

    Dropbox has been indispensable since I first got it during beta testing. I love it and I’m glad lots of other folks seem to be loving it as well. The fact that you really don’t need to do *anything* to make full use of it is really what makes it one of the best file sync apps out there.


    Why “Cloud computing” is like teenage sex

    1. It’s on everybody’s mind all the time.

    2. Everyone is talking about it all the time.

    3. Everyone thinks everyone else is doing it.

    4. Almost no one is really doing it.

    5. The few who are doing it are

    a. doing it poorly,

    b. sure it will be better next time,

    c. not practicing it safely.

  12. I’ve been a Dropbox user since closed beta (got in thanks to a thread where i got my invite), and I love it for every reason you mention and more.

    A few days ago I discovered they now have a Linux compatible interface! and now my life is complete…

    To anyone who does not have a Dropbox account yet, please do yourselves a favor and go get one now.

  13. You may have already seen this, but I feel like your “C; Provide additional, unexpected awesomeness” could be that symlinks “just work”.

    So for example, /home/www/ is your local webserver for dev work, you want that dropboxed but don’t want to reconfigure apache etc to run from dropbox. So you just softlink it into /path/to/dropbox/

    ln -s /home/www/ /path/to/dropbox/local-apache

  14. It’s older than that. Remember in the old days, we had things called “mainframes” and “dumb terminals”? Same thing.

  15. Does it bother anyone at all that the user-agreement for Dropbox includes:


    To me, that says Dropbox gets blanket access to my computer. Paranoia?

  16. Che: I don’t know how it could work if you didn’t agree to those clauses…

  17. Nail on the head. Dropbox let’s me be dumb too, but in clever ways.

    I’ve been using it since the invite only beta and It. Just. Works. It was exactly what I was looking for: file synchronisation that gets out of my way. I had tried .Mac (now MobileMe) and found it to be too fussy.

    The other beauty of Dropbox is that there is no fear of being locked in to their service. If they came crashing down I would still have all my files backed up across however many computers I am keeping in sync. Oh yeah, backups for free.

    Finally, one nice trick I discovered on my Macs is that I can symlink my Address Book, Calendars and Safari Bookmark directories in ~/Library to a directory within Dropbox. Now I have my contacts, etc synced between my computers without any fuss.

  18. Scott 15 years ago

    I’ve been using Dropbox since before Dropbox was invented. (Apparently people feel like announcing that they’ve been using Dropbox for longer than everyone else makes them cool, so I thought I’d outdo them). In all honesty though, Dropbox is the most impressive sync I’ve ever come across, and has been indispensable for me. I use it only for critical files that I need on two computers at once, so I haven’t hit the 2GB cap, though I’m thinking of doing the paid program just to contribute to the project’s longevity.

  19. Jason F 15 years ago

    Cool program, The idea obviously is not new, but the use is so seamless. I love not having to use some website interface or even another program that does the same thing – but looks and acts so differently from everything else it becomes painful to use.

    On a random side note this article reminded me of Windows Live Search possibly re-branding to Kumo ( a japanese word for cloud). Maybe another example of failed cloud computing?

  20. Nicely put, I have sort of thought the same thing about the cloud hype recently. It feels very manufactured in a marketing sort of way. We may be using web sites differently these days but really it’s more of the same old thing, we just have better bandwidth and web sites now, isn’t it?

    Love the dropbox description, have also tried a few of these and as you say they usually try too hard and are quickly forgotten. I wonder how many gigs of mp3s I have left on various services in the name of testing, now forgotten.

  21. Robert D. 15 years ago

    Abso-freaking-lutely. Dropbox’s simplicity and ability to get out of my way and just work is why I’ve been using them for quite a while now. I have Dropbox at home and (until IT said “no way; get rid of that!”) on my work computer, too. It was marvelous to be working at home, just drag a file to my Dropbox folder and know it’s going to show up there at work when I log on to my computer next. The undelete is priceless and shared folders are also very nice for collaborating.

  22. “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.”

    Absolutely agreed! I wish more people who wrote software realized this and made their software do what users need without asking users to make so many decisions!

  23. @Justin D Nice example for cloud.

    I’m too much afraid of cloud. Dunno why.

  24. Bill Indest 15 years ago

    Excellent read – I learned some history, design considerations and a useful tool which I will use.

    And Larry Ellison agrees with you:

  25. + 1

    I agree with you on Dropbox. Plus there is this added bonus:

  26. Nice review. Dropbox is the epitome of what I want in a sync application. All others should strive to achieve this sort of ease in usability. And it has saved me from the dreaded Delete monster several times already, including some revision control awesomeness because sometimes I get a little too save happy.

  27. Yes, dropbox is very clever. I love it!

    But be aware, that it doesn’t yet (they are working on it) support Mac Resourceforks or extended file attributes.

  28. Aristotelis 15 years ago

    Excellent article, thank you very much. I’d like to add that dropbox together with time machine has been absolute nirvana for a 6 people project. Even the silliest moments have been solved with a single click. As you said, it’s not the number of features, but how you make things work in transparency. Computers and software should help our work in transparency, not being “the work” itself.

  29. SteveD 15 years ago

    “I got a few paragraphs in and thought, “I can’t wait to tell him about DropBox!””

    I was thinking the same thing. I’ve been using dropbox for a month now after getting bored fiddling with USB drives and Gmailing .docs to myself to get them onto different machines. Its brilliant.

    But there are some new applications of the `cloud. Last month I copied the superb physics game ‘World of Goo’ (shameless plug) onto a laptop for entertainment on a business trip, but transferring my progress from desktop to laptop meant figuring out where Vista had hidden the save file, transferring it via USB to the desktop, then figuring out exactly where XP wanted it placed.

    Now Valve have announced their Steam client will be updated with a save-game cloud feature, something that’s never really been present in singleplayer gaming before.

  30. Brennan Young 15 years ago

    Good post!

    But Rands – you yourself are in the habit of coining wacky new names for things which have perfectly good names already. I spotted at least a dozen examples in “Managing Humans”.

    The difference, of course, is that the glossary of Randspeak never makes it to meme level, and so is merely amusing, rather than irritating.

    Still, after I read a few times “An X is a bla bla bla…” and then gradually coming to the conclusion that bla bla bla is actually what I have always known as Y, some of the ethos rather leaked out of the Rands rhetorical balloon and I found myself losing faith. A kettle is a kind of pot, I suppose.

    But worse is when a perfectly good name begins to be used for something totally different, like ‘R&B’ now appears to mean ‘Soul’. For some reason, this infuriates me even more than stuff like ‘Cloud computing’.

    Well.. back to my ‘hipster PDA’.

  31. Great review. What iDisk / MobileMe (.Mac) should have been in the first place. I have been using it for a week with my 7.5 GB + /Documents directory placed inside /Dropbox … and so far so good.

  32. I used DB to coordinate an InDesign project with a client… I did the design, she added content – to the same file. No lengthy back and forths, no duplicate files.

    I heart Dropbox!

  33. Dave Broadwin 15 years ago

    You are a very tech savvy crowd (which I am not), so, at the risk of asking a dumb question, what happens to my files if Dropbox goes out of business?

  34. One thing that’s made me feel a bit better about Dropbox is my (admittedly geeky) setup for transparent encryption of everything that gets uploaded to DB. That way, even if a DB employee turns out to be evil, they can’t get to my Quicken files and such.

    In a nutshell, I created ~/MyDocs and ~/Dropbox/MyDocs folders and mounted an encfs virtual disk on top of them (via MacFUSE). That way, I just store everything in ~/MyDocs and it’s transparently encrypted into my Dropbox and synced to all of my systems.

  35. I’d never heard of DropBox before. You did a great job selling the service actually, thanks, i just started using it.

  36. kolos 15 years ago

    “You are a very tech savvy crowd (which I am not), so, at the risk of asking a dumb question, what happens to my files if Dropbox goes out of business?”


    Since all of the files in your Dropbox are stored locally, should DB suddenly vanish or go offline, you’d still have each file on each computer.

  37. Christen Dybenko 15 years ago

    The “cloud” is now the hype like how the term “AJAX” ( ) suddenly made XMLHttpRequest sexy. These catchy buzz words are easier for the “big wigs” to understand and marketers can go crazy.

    Thanks for the breakdown of dropbox. I’m using it, but not to its full potential. I’m going to have to experiment.

  38. I was just thinking this morning how I need a program like that would do this. Then I opened IUseThis and there it was. The first app on the recent update list. Then I found my way here. Great review. You convinced me. Could have done without the written profanity, but I know how losing work is and I’ve definitely let a few slip out. ;]

  39. I discovered this article rather late, but the complete lack of criticism in the comments regarding missing user notifications in Dropbox amazes me.

    I fail to see how silently creating conflict files and not letting the user know is better than notifying the user of conflicting changes.

    You’ll have to make the decision (to discard one of the files or somehow merge them) anyway.

    Chances are, the user never notices this or only does much later, when there is already a mess of files of then-unclear content.

  40. I discovered this article rather late, but the complete lack of criticism in the comments regarding missing user notifications in Dropbox amazes me.

    I fail to see how silently creating conflict files and not letting the user know is better than notifying the user of conflicting changes.

    You’ll have to make the decision (to discard one of the files or somehow merge them) anyway.

    Chances are, the user never notices this or only does much later, when there is already a mess of files of then-unclear content.

  41. Sorry for double post, but that somehow fits the topic, ironically 🙂