I am a Dropbox fan. I’ve been a committed user for at least two years and, despite attempts by other online storage services to lure me in, Dropbox remains king in my world.
Which got me to thinking: What is it about Dropbox that is so compelling when there are so many other alternatives, often with better and broader services?
For the uninitiated, Dropbox is an online storage service that sits on your desktop as a folder. As you drop files into the folder it synchronises these with your allocated online storage space. You can also load Dropbox onto other machines that you use and have the data synchronised with those as well.
It’s pretty simple, really.
So simple that many others have tried to claim a piece of the online storage pie, including the likes of UbuntuOne, ZumoDrive and SugarSync. In most cases they offer a great deal more than Dropbox does: UbuntuOne synchronises bookmarks, notes, even contacts. ZumoDrive has its own way of accessing data that speeds up processes, and SugarSync has built-in versioning so you can roll back to previous versions of your data.
I’ve tried them all and yet I still stick with Dropbox.
When it comes to online storage there is only really one thing I want to do: synchronise my files across multiple computers and the Internet. Do I want to set up a special area for all my contact information? Not really. Do I want to access my files via RSS? No. Do I want to buy music through my online service account? No, no matter how cool that sounds.
All I really want to do is save a file into a folder and forget about it until I need to access it again. Which is exactly what Dropbox does. I know other services also do something like this but frankly they all seem to evolve over time to become too complicated, too full of possible features and are too much in your face.
The lesson to be learned in the popularity of Dropbox is that in many cases the simplest approach is what works well. If you’re developing a piece of software then you’re probably better off spending most of your energy making it do one thing exceptionally well rather than have 10 reasonably good features.
Too many features
I’m a big fan of Ubuntu but UbuntuOne, Canonical’s online storage service, is a good case to look at.
Initially UbuntuOne was simply a Dropbox clone. The first version wasn’t that good but it was tolerable because it was still early days. The second and third versions were marginally better.
Then suddenly UbuntuOne started getting tons of new features. It could synchronise bookmarks, notes, even sell you music. All of which sounded amazing but every time one of my files wasn’t synchronised all I could think was: ‘Why all these new features when the one I actually want doesn’t work that well?’
UbuntuOne is not alone in this. Many of the other services I have tried suffer from the same problem – not enough attention on the core service provided by the application. Just because application can, in theory, perform a task doesn’t actually mean it should.
Here’s the thing. If I wanted to back up my bookmarks I could do it many ways, including making a copy of them and storing them in my Dropbox folder. If I want to store my daily task notes then I store them in the same folder.
It’s crude but effective and I don’t need yet another plugin to save this article into my synchronisation folder.
Dropbox ticks all the right boxes when it comes to user experience: The learning curve is minimal (most users understand folders), it works reliably and doesn’t demand much in the way of attention to do do its job. A lesson many developers could learn from: Make one great feature before adding more.
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