I am thinking about whether I want to use Dropbox to sync my files anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dropbox. It came along in beta in just 2008 just as I needed it to manage my PhD thesis. In fact I often jokingly claim to having invented it by asking on the MacRumors forums whether a program like it existed – just a few weeks before its beta rode in to my life like a knight in shining armour. I recognised the need for a service that would synchronise a single directory and its contents between multiple computers using The Power Of The Internet™. I was used to using commands like scp to maintain my static blog on the university’s servers and the multiple computers that I authored it from, though in 2008 when I moved back to my parents’ house to write up my PhD I was frustrated that I couldn’t work out how to do the same things when the target was a PC running Windows XP.
Enter Dropbox. It filled the role beautifully, no matter whether I used my parent’s PC with the printer attached or my own mac when sequestered away in my room, I was always updating the right version. This is crucial when writing a thesis! As a beta tester I started with a decent amount of space and this expanded over the years, I even completed one of their “dropquests”. Over the years various iterations of models I worked on got synced all over the place with Dropbox, though in retrospect perhaps I should have used a transfer method that allowed me to step away from things more decisively from time to time. Last week I finally purged those models from my Dropbox folder and it felt really good.
The most obvious use for Dropbox these days is to back up and store my photos. (I also use synced storage to access my technical PDFs while on the go.) I recently upgraded my phone and while it is magical how easy it is to move photos from one phone to the next, it would be more difficult if I was moving away from Apple to Android or Windows Phone because I use the easy to use Photo Stream. Dropbox offers a platform neutral solution to the problem of photo backup and up until recently I’d thought that I’d buy space from them so that I could store all my photos with them.
However two things made me think again. The first is the appointment of Iraq War architect Condoleezza Rice to the board of Dropbox ahead of its IPO. As this well-argued website points out, it sends out a poor message to users of service that relies on privacy to appoint someone who authorised unwarranted wiretaps while in power. With Dr. Rice on the board, it is possible to perceive Dropbox as the kind of company that would spy on you without you knowing it. It’s all very well (crucial in fact) to submit to law enforcement clutching warrants but to those without warrants simply wrapped up in the flag? No thanks.
Of course Dropbox pleads its innocence but then it pretty much has to. They have always had a playful sense of fun and their trademark hand drawn cartoons promote a gentle ideology of making things easy for their users. Perhaps Dr. Rice would not be allowed to alter the ethos of the company and Dropbox would not change. Unfortunately I think that Carousel, a new mobile app which looks after the photos in your Dropbox folder, shows that the company are in fact becoming control freaks. It’s the little things and I am not sure I trust them anymore.
I installed Carousel on my phone only to find that it would not work unless I allowed the app to upload all the photos on my phone to Dropbox. I know that I had considered putting all my photos on Dropbox but there is a difference between wanting to and having to! I had photos in my Dropbox folder already so I didn’t need to upload any to see how the app worked. I have a huge problem with auto-upload services that you have to opt out of rather than opt in to. Apple does it too, but when you turn off Photo Stream it doesn’t cripple the entire photo viewing experience on your device. If you let Dropbox upload all your photos and then delete them, can you really trust them to actually delete them given how much they wanted them there in the first place?
So what next? Well, it might make you laugh but I am slowly moving toward Microsoft’s OneDrive service. I have more space there (28 Gb vs 10.8 Gb) and while Microsoft have hardly been the epitome of great software in the past, the OneDrive service is multi-platform and works as well as Dropbox. Some might argue that this is simply transferring my head from the jaws of a lion to those of a wolf. Nevertheless I’m going to tinker with OneDrive over the next few weeks and make up my mind1.
Other services are also available, like SpiderOak and Copy, but I don’t really have time to evaluate them again. I found SpiderOak to be overpriced and slow when I tried it before. Copy is generous with space but after installation I had no use for another dropbox at the time; perhaps Copy is another good bet.↩