I feel I am due for a break from the GFC* and so will instead return to the subject of Web 2.0.
Whenever I come across a new Web 2.0 site/application/service I cannot help but sign up. A quick search for the phrase “welcome to” in my gmail archives throws up about 100 messages, representing only some of the debris of this obsession: sites I have signed up for, explored briefly and mostly never visited again.
Among these, however, is a recent discovery that has quickly become an indispensable tool. Alongside gmail and google calendar, Dropbox is now one of my favourite examples of “cloud computing”. In a nutshell, it provides synchronised offsite storage in an extraordinarily seamless way. For a new service, still only in beta, it is very impressive.
Dropbox is by no means the only offsite storage system around. I have investigated many others, including XDrive [now no longer operating], Mozy, Carbonite, and Box.net. Until now, my favourite had been Jungle Disk, which essentially turns space on Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) into a virtual drive on your computer, but now I have come to rely on Dropbox.
Getting started with Dropbox is straightforward. It is free to sign up and download the software for PC, Mac OSX or Linux. When installed, the software creates a conveniently located Dropbox folder on your computer (e.g. under “My Documents” on a PC). Any files you create in or copy to this folder are automatically backed up to the Dropbox servers. The back-up is fast (depending, of course, on the speed of your internet connection) and unobtrusive. When browsing through your Dropbox folder, it is immediately clear when the backup is finished as a green tick appears on the folders or files. But it is when you work across multiple computers (e.g. home and office) that Dropbox comes into its own. Changes on each machine are automatically synchronised and, better still, if you accidentally delete or change a file, Dropbox gives you access to all the older versions of the file. If you are using a laptop that is not always online, you can work with the local copies of all of your files, which will then be synchronised next time you are online.
You can also access all of your Dropbox files through a web browser. Once you log into the Dropbox site, you can download the current or older versions of any of your files, create new folders and upload new files. The website also provides some additional features, such as sharing individual folders with other people which provides a straightforward approach to collaboration. Also, any images saved in a folder called “Photos” will automatically appear as photo albums which can also be shared with others.
The first 2GB of storage at Dropbox is free, but after that is costs US$10 per month for up to 50GB of storage. That does make the paid option more expensive than alternative services (I would not be surprised to see the price fall if Dropbox becomes successful). Amazon S3 costs US$0.15 per GB, so 50GB would cost $7.50, while Mozy costs only $4.75 per month for unlimited storage. Nevertheless, so far I am well within my 2GB limit and find Dropbox invaluable as a virtual briefcase, eliminating the need to email documents to myself or copy files to a USB drive. For now I will continue to use Jungle Disk for routine offsite backup as it is the most cost effective solution for data up to around 30GB, but the more I use Dropbox, the more tempted I will be to upgrade to the paid plan.
* Global Financial Crisis