Why I Use Dropbox

Paul Thurrott recently (well, “recently”; I’m a bit delayed on this due to moving) posted an article about Dropbox — specifically, why anyone who uses Windows would use it over Live Mesh.

Well, I use Windows, Live Mesh AND Dropbox. If you’re at all interested in cross-device synchronization, then neither Dropbox or Live Mesh should be so quickly dismissed. This is true, even in light of Dropbox’s recent (“recent”) security issues.

First, let me just say that everything Paul says about Windows Live Mesh is entirely true, and the reasons he gives for using it — more storage, flexible folder syncing, peer-to-peer syncing, remote desktop access, application settings syncing — are valid. These are all reasons why I use Windows Live Mesh, too.

Okay, so what about Dropbox?

Simplicity
It could be argued that this is a weakness, especially in light of the aforementioned security issues. But in a lot of ways, it is also a strength. Want to share a batch of photos with friends? Put them in the “Photos” folder of your Dropbox and you instantly have a nicely formatted photo album that you can share with a simple URL. Live Mesh offers no such functionality. You can get this from SkyDrive, but in Microsoft’s infinite wisdom, the “SkyDrive” product that has the photo album functionality is separate from the “SkyDrive” product that Live Mesh uses. Right.

Likewise, if you want to share any file with someone, just plop it in your Dropbox Public folder and you’re done. Live Mesh has similar functionality, but it’s not as intuitive or instant.

Speed and Reliability
Speaking of instant, I often defer to Dropbox for quick file transfers between computers because Live Mesh will sometimes be confusingly slow — especially when it’s a time-critical situation (of course). Whereas Dropbox appears to sync a file between all your computers nearly instantaneously, Live Mesh takes a three step plan: acknowledge the file is there, set up .wlx placeholder files on each synched computer, transfer the real file. Frequently I’ll find myself staring at a folder of .wlx files, begging for Live Mesh to start transferring them, but with no luck. It’s even worse when everything transfers except one or two files.

Backups
A nifty feature that has saved me more than a few times is Dropbox’s ability to save backups of every revision of a file. It’s only for a limited time span if you don’t pay a subscription fee, but for most cases that’s all you need anyway. It’s for those times when you make a few changes, realize you blew away something important, and need to recover a version from ten minutes ago. If you need anything from longer ago than that — well, you do make regular backups right? At the least, you can use Windows’ Previous Versions feature.

No Windows? No problem.
Okay, so Paul’s original article was framed with the assumption that you are using Windows. But it’s worth noting that, except for a few users with simple needs, people don’t use just one platform anymore — and I’m not just talking about desktop platforms. Certainly, Dropbox works as well on Windows as it does on OS X and Linux. But there are mobile platforms too. Dropbox lets you access all your files on Android, Blackberry, iPhone and iPad. Windows Live Mesh? Windows Phone only. You could argue that Microsoft wants to lock you into their ecosystem, but with recent iPad and iPhone specific apps (Bing, Photosynth), that doesn’t really make sense. (And, as a side note, they are very well-written apps, and worth a look if you haven’t already.)

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there is an amazing freedom and sense of power to be able to pull out your mobile device and instantly have access to some of your most important files — most of which you can interact with directly on that device. Having Dropbox so readily available is amazing.

About that security fiasco…
It sucked. No company should allow such weak security in a service as ubiquitous as Dropbox. But lets be honest here: nothing in the cloud is private. The recent antics of Anonymous and Lulzsec should have made that painfully clear. If you want to store private data in an open container such as the Internet, YOU need to ensure for YOURSELF that the data is safe by applying your own encryption or what have you. If you don’t do this, and you just upload private data assuming it will be safe because the service you’re using says so — well, God help you.

You could argue that Microsoft has more experience in this space and can be better trusted with security. Perhaps. I might have said the same thing about Sony at the start of the year.

So which is better? It’s hard to say. Live Mesh certainly gives you more control over what files and folders are synchronized, but that comes at a price of being locked to primarily Windows devices. There is an OS X client (which is actually rather nice), but it doesn’t have the extra features such as Remote Desktop.

Then there is Dropbox, which gives stupid-simple photo and file sharing — not just for your own devices, but for friends and the public too. In addition, there are simple backup capabilities for projects you want a basic safety net for.

They both have compelling features that are worth watching. Don’t dismiss one over the other unless you really know what you’re giving up. And even then, competition will make both of these products evolve over time. Keep watching.

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