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How Dropbox is finally breaking free of the folder

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11.06.2019

For years, the single best thing about Dropbox was that it was practically invisible.

The service, which debuted in 2008, was far from the first to put a hard drive in the cloud, having been preceded by the likes of i-drive, X-drive, Driveway, and Microsoft’s OneDrive (née SkyDrive, née Windows Live Folders). But Dropbox integrated so tightly with a variety of computing platforms, and synced data so reliably, that you didn’t have to give it much thought. Beyond a few right-click menu items for features such as sharing links to files, there was little evidence of all the heavy lifting it was doing in the background.

Quietly living inside file managers built by operating-system companies “served us well,” says Dropbox CEO and cofounder Drew Houston. Indeed it did. The service, which he was inspired to create as an MIT student—the eureka moment came on a bus trip to New York when he’d forgotten his trusty thumb drive at home—has grown to serve more than a half-billion users and 400,000-plus business teams. But Dropbox’s lack of a user-facing interface it could truly call its own has also been confining, especially as the service has built itself into something that’s about much more than raw online storage.

After all, Windows’ File Explorer and MacOS’s Finder haven’t changed much—and certainly aren’t optimized for the the sort of workplace collaboration that propelled Dropbox to its IPO last year. “If you went back to literally the original Finder, it’s the same experience,” says Houston. “It’s designed for a world not only before the internet, but before computers were even networked, when your whole life could fit on a couple of floppy disks.” Which might lead you to wonder: What would Dropbox be like if it had more say about how people used it?

Dropbox’s desktop apps let you affix notes and to-dos to the top of folders. [Image: courtesy of Dropbox]Today, at a media event in San Francisco, the company is answering that question with an upgrade it’s dubbed “the new Dropbox.” But “upgrade” fails to convey the import of the news: For the first time, Dropbox is emerging from Windows and MacOS’s file systems and setting up shop in a full-fledged app of its own, where it can do things its own way and meld itself with other key productivity offerings such as Slack and Zoom. The new app, according to Houston, is about “turning Dropbox from the filing cabinet to the conference room. There’s people, and there’s content, and you can have conversations, and it can be on the whiteboard. That’s metaphorically the evolution of the experience we thought no one was really building.”

Dropbox users—including those on the free Basic tier—can opt into the new Dropbox as an early-access feature, which also includes updates to the mobile apps and web-based version. After a period of testing, it will become part of the default offering. Everything that’s new is in addition to the old-school interface rather than a replacement for it, which means that those who were happy with the service the way it was needn’t fear its arrival or adjust their work habits before they’re ready.

The familiar and the new

The new Dropbox desktop app is rife with elements that the company has not tried to reinvent. Like a lot of productivity apps—from Slack to Gmail to Dropbox’s own Paper collaborative document editor—it has a search bar up top, a skinny left-hand pane for navigating content, a roomier middle one for viewing and interacting with it, and another skinny pane on the right where some additional functionality lives. All the mundane file-wrangling features you’d expect, such as tools for moving, copying, renaming, and deleting files and folders—are present and accounted for. Along with dragging files and folders to the left pane for easy access, as File Explorer and Finder let you do, you can pin items to the top of a folder to eliminate the need to rummage for them.

Dropbox users—including those on the free Basic tier—can opt into the new Dropbox as an early-access feature, which also includes updates to the mobile apps and web-based version. After a period of testing, it will become part of the default offering. Everything that’s new is in addition to the old-school interface rather than a replacement for it, which means that those who were happy with the service the way it was needn’t fear its arrival or adjust their work habits before they’re ready.

The new Dropbox desktop app is rife with elements that the company has not tried to reinvent. Like a lot of productivity apps—from Slack to Gmail to Dropbox’s own Paper collaborative document editor—it has a search bar up top, a skinny left-hand pane for navigating content, a roomier middle one for viewing and interacting with it, and another skinny pane on the right where some additional functionality lives. All the mundane file-wrangling features you’d expect, such as tools for moving, copying, renaming, and deleting files and folders—are present and accounted for. Along with dragging files and folders to the left pane for easy access, as File Explorer and Finder let you do, you........

© Fast Company