Alongside some welcome improvements to their desktop client, Dropbox announced today they're adding a document scanning feature to their iOS app:
With document scanning, you can now use the Dropbox mobile app to capture and organize scans from whiteboards, receipts, and sketches, so your ideas are right at your fingertips. Dropbox Business users can even search inside the scans.
The feature is detailed here, and it looks like it's been integrated with the '+' button to behave as any other file you'd manually import into Dropbox.
I don't think of Dropbox as an app on my phone – it's my online filesystem, which is why right now I'm struggling to imagine using it to scan documents. Essentially, I keep Dropbox on my iOS devices for two reasons: to share files with others and to grant other apps access to Dropbox. I don't spend a lot of time in the Dropbox app itself.
However, it appears that Dropbox has done a nice job in streamlining the functionality as much as possible, and I like how they're moving more and more features to Business-only users, so I'm going to give this a try.
With Project Infinite, we’re addressing a major issue our users have asked us to solve. The amount of information being created and shared has exploded, but most people still work on devices with limited storage capacity. While teams can store terabyte upon terabyte in the cloud, most individuals’ laptops can only store a small fraction of that. Getting secure access to all the team’s data usually means jumping over to a web browser, a clunky user experience at best.
Project Infinite will enable users to seamlessly and securely access all their Dropbox files from the desktop, regardless of how much space they have available on their hard drives. Everything in the company’s Dropbox that you’re given access to, whether it’s stored locally or in the cloud, will show up in Dropbox on your desktop. If it’s synced locally, you’ll see the familiar green checkmark, while everything else will have a new cloud icon.
In a way, this makes the desktop app more similar to the mobile clients – everything is always in Dropbox, and it's downloaded locally only when you need it. Smart move.
Cowling and crew started work on the Magic Pocket software in the summer of 2013 and spent about six months building the initial code. But this was a comparatively small step. Once the system was built, they had to make sure it worked. They had to get it onto thousands of machines inside multiple data centers. They had to tailor the software to their new hardware. And, yes, they had to get all that data off of Amazon.
The whole process took two years. A project like this, needless to say, is a technical challenge. But it’s also a logistical challenge. Moving that much data across the Internet is one thing. Moving that many machines into data centers is another. And they had to do both, as Dropbox continued to serve hundreds of millions of people. “It’s like a moving car,” says Dan Williams, a former Facebook network engineer who oversaw much of the physical expansion, “and you want to be able to change a tire while still driving.” In other words, while making all these changes, Dropbox couldn’t very well shut itself down. It couldn’t tell the hundreds of millions of users who relied on Dropbox that their files were temporarily unavailable. Ironically, one of the best measures of success for this massive undertaking would be that users wouldn’t notice it had happened at all.
People who are really serious about cloud storage should make their own hardware and software, I guess.
Building new products is about learning as much as it’s about making. It’s also about tough choices. Over the past few months, we’ve increased our team’s focus on collaboration and simplifying the way people work together. In light of that, we’ve made the difficult decision to shut down Carousel and Mailbox.
The Carousel and Mailbox teams have built products that are loved by many people and their work will continue to have an impact. We’ll be taking key features from Carousel back to the place where your photos live—in the Dropbox app. We’ll also be using what we’ve learned from Mailbox to build new ways to communicate and collaborate on Dropbox (you can see early signs of this focus with Paper).
As for transitions:
We’re committed to making the transitions from these products as painless as possible. We’ve posted more information on the Carousel blog and the Mailbox blog, and we’ll be communicating details directly to users of both apps in the coming days. Mailbox will be shut down on February 26th, 2016, and Carousel will be shut down on March 31st, 2016.
I say "unsurprising" for two reasons. I first heard of key members leaving the Mailbox team months ago, and my understanding was that the product was already done at that point. But even without this tidbit of information, it was easy to guess what would happen – both apps had languished on the App Store without major updates, showing no signs of adopting new iOS features or new features at all.
I don't want to see Dropbox losing focus in trying to understand what's next for them with too many experiments and semi-abandoned initiatives. I'll be keeping an eye on this.
Dropbox officially discontinuing two abandoned products can be interpreted as a willingness to regroup and focus. On the other hand, saying that Carousel had a future ahead just a few months ago and then discontinuing it today doesn't help the company's case for yet another app on top of Dropbox.
I'm a big Dropbox user – I store and share files with it every day – but I can see how other companies are implementing core Dropbox features faster than Dropbox can understand its place in 2015. However, as someone who doesn't use iCloud Drive because I don't trust it for work files, I genuinely hope Dropbox continues to exist for many years to come. Features like sharing, versions, easy restore of deleted files, clear app integrations, and its overall simplicity are still unmatched by Apple and others.
As for photos and email: Outlook for iOS is great, and you'd be better served by iCloud Photo Library or Google Photos anyway.
Earlier today, Dropbox unveiled Paper, an evolution (and a not so creatively named one) of the Dropbox Notes beta announced in April. Dropbox Paper sounds like a Google Docs and Quip-like product where you can create rich documents and collaborate with others in real-time.
Paper feels like a cross between Google Docs and Medium. It’s an ultra-minimal text editor—every new document offers space for a title and a body, and nothing else to look at. You go to paper.dropbox.com (which right now won’t get you anywhere unless you’re in the beta), and just start typing.
There’s some basic formatting in the document—you can write in Markdown, or use sub-heds and bold text. But that’s all obscured, in the hope you’ll turn off your internal font freak and just start typing. You can add images, too, dragging and dropping them around the page or making one full-bleed on the page with a single click. If you write lines of code, it’ll automatically format and style them as code. Or create a to-do list, and assign tasks to other people by @-mentioning them in the document. Or paste a Dropbox-stored file in, and it’ll automatically be available to everyone shared on your Paper document.
I'm curious to see what Dropbox does here. The company is diversifying their offer now that cloud storage has become a feature, and they're working on a mobile app to access Paper natively from iOS (right now, it's web-only). Unlike Google, Dropbox gets iOS design and conventions, and they're usually quick in adopting new iOS technologies every year (Google Docs still doesn't support iPad multitasking on iOS 9).
The closest service that comes to mind when looking at Paper is Quip (which was also in the news today), but Dropbox has the advantage of building on an existing foundation of collaboration, files, email, and search. On the other hand, I don't want to see Dropbox losing focus in trying to understand what's next for them with too many experiments and semi-abandoned initiatives. I'll be keeping an eye on this.
Side note: if you receive a link to a Dropbox Paper document right now, it'll open with a Universal Link in the Dropbox app inside a web view. It works okay, but there needs to be a native app for this soon.
Dropbox yesterday announced a new feature to allow you to drag URLs from websites into your Dropbox folders to store them alongside your files. The feature is available on both the desktop and web versions of dropbox, and is as easy as dragging from the address bar on a web browser and dropping the URL into a local Dropbox folder or the Dropbox web app in a browser window. The URL is stored right alongside the rest of your files. Clicking on it from a Finder window opens it right away, while clicking on it from the browser version will open a page with a large "Open in new tab" button in the center. You can open the same page on the Dropbox mobile app, and open the URL in Safari from there, but there's no way as of yet to store URLs to your Dropbox from mobile.
The new feature is reminiscent to me of a similar feature in the upcoming iOS 9/OS X El Capitan version of Apple's Notes app. You can save URLs directly into your notes, which allows you to easily keep relevant sources or other web media close at hand while working on or reviewing the note. Dropbox's take on this allows that type of easy organization of sources or relevant web media without forcing you to use a proprietary file format. While Notes may let you view previews of the URLs inline, in exchange the files can only be opened in the Notes app. If you want them elsewhere you'll need to export them to PDF and lose any interactivity with the file or the associated URLs. With Dropbox's new URL storing feature, you can store websites alongside files no matter what the project that you are working on may be, and then access them from any platform.
The lack of support for adding URLs from mobile does seem like a shame to me. I often go through Twitter on my iPad or iPhone, and it would be great to be able to quickly save URLs to my Dropbox via the iOS share sheet when I come across something relevant to a project I'm working on. That said, it seems like such an obvious feature that I would be surprised if it was not implemented eventually. Hopefully we'll see it soon.
While I'm not certain right now if I will go all in with this feature and start saving all of the sources for projects I'm working on into Dropbox alongside the project files, it's definitely nice to have the option. In fact that's my favorite part of the implementation: it will integrate directly into existing workflows without requiring any changes whatsoever. Since the URLs are stored separately from the files, the most you'll need to do is move your project into it's own folder (but let's be real, who doesn't keep projects in their own folders anyway?) and then you can drag links on top of the folder to store them alongside the rest of the project. You can do this right now, the feature already works.
This feature is an excellent example of Dropbox innovating on its platform while still staying true to itself. Rather than getting sucked into the modern trend of proprietary file formats with fancy inline previews and interactivity, Dropbox kept things simple, and kept their hands out of our file extensions; yet they still made a way for us to achieve the same overall goal that apps like Notes and Evernote have shown to be useful. I love seeing implementations like this from Dropbox, and I hope they continue finding new ways to make their system more powerful without adding layers of complexity for their users to deal with.
We think of Dropbox as a service for synching our directories, but the real value they bring is in applying a level of thoughtfulness that no one really applied to files before. A lot of that is part and parcel with storing this stuff in the cloud, which affords many user benefits—including availability of one’s files to countless third-party apps. But a lot of it is very particular to Dropbox’s superb design of the user experience.
I agree with Khoi Vinh's assessment of Dropbox's strengths in the era of apps and hidden filesystems. My work depends on Dropbox: all my text files are on it (through Editorial); it's the fastest way to share images across devices (I can't get AirDrop to work reliably between my iPhone and iPad most of the time); and, it's the backbone of the apps I use every day to publish articles and organize my research. I could work without Dropbox and use something like OneDrive or iCloud, but my workflow would considerably suffer. I'd be slower and live with the constant fear of losing control over files or, worse, the files themselves.
I also agree with the comment on the design of Dropbox. Features like versions, shareable links, and the recent addition of comments and recent files are all powered by a tasteful design that hides complexity and makes everything seem easy and seamless. I hope Dropbox continues to remain relevant.
I was excited to discover Revisions For Dropbox, a Mac app for viewing a history of changes for any file or folder in your Dropbox account. I'd been looking for precisely this solution, and it didn't disappoint.
With an update released today on the App Store, Dropbox has brought file comments and a new Recents tab to its iOS app for iPhone and iPad. I've been trying both features today, and I can see how they're going to speed up the way I rely on Dropbox for personal and collaborative use.