Transitional Technology

John Gruber recently discussed his opinions on why Apple should buy Dropbox. And while I agree that this would probably be a good purchase, it won’t happen since Dropbox represents the “old world” where as iCloud is looking to build the “new world”.  Picking up Dropbox would thus be a defensive move today, ensuring they protect the current workflow of many customers and remove it from the options of competitors (read: Android).  Though as a nice bonus it would snag a number of talented individuals.

Dropbox is about the past. It represents a technology we are moving away from: Files and the File System. The core of Dropbox is a cloud drive used to store files and make them readily available on different systems (iPad to Desktop to iPhone to … etc). And it is incredible useful … today, however, computing is moving away from the files and more to cloud-based objects of data.

What I am seeing is a move towards the cloud service where the data is just data, not represented by a file, but a reference to associated information.  If you want access to the data then you integrate with the ‘service’ APIs, and display that data as you (or the app) see fit.  The idea of the “photo stream” is probably a prime example; you snap a picture, put it in the stream, see it everywhere that is pulling that stream (thinking Flickr). Google Docs follows this principle to some extent but falls short by still referring to everything as files – where there isn’t any need other than to provide a name to the object.

Moving away from a File based approach has its costs, but gains in convenience. You no longer truly “own” or control your data, it is stored in some server in some far off place.  However, the “system” can offer you built-in data protection with system backups become less a concern for “Mom and Dad”, integration and inter-operation are based on the apps and no longer do users need to manage files.  Searching, sorting, filtering, organizing can all be taken to a new level and focused on the application you want to work in and allow the combining of many different data sources.

Simple fact is, when I start development of an application today my first questions are “Will this application be sharing data between devices? and will I be wanting to share it with others?”,  then I move to “Is there a service out there that provides that data storage and organization out there? and can I integrate with that?”

That is essentially where I think iCloud is going. Providing the abstraction layer between the application and the data. You don’t see a file and you are not suppose to see a file – instead applications handle that interaction and management.  However, we are in a transition period and right now people expect files, need files. Changing that is going to take breaking some habits, and providing that transition service might just be a crutch that enables users to hold onto that old world to longer than Apple wants and inhibiting the future as they see it.

The problem is, iCloud is not ready. I think iCloud needs to offer a better means of allowing integration between applications – much like it does with the Photo Library and Contacts Library. I could see this happen by allowing 3rd parties to offer integration frameworks to their datasets – or gateways. I believe iCloud also needs to allow and facilitate web-service API access so that web-apps and other platforms can also integrate with the iCloud service. One of the main reasons I have looked off iCloud for my ongoing projects have been due to the simple fact is I don’t see a way of integrated with a companion web-app, and Android app.

If Dropbox was determined to continue on their own, they should looking at providing some of these services and grow into a bigger platform on which application data is based.  Amazon would be there biggest competitor here.   My thought is really that Yahoo will buy Dropbox and continue to live outside the realm of the “big 3” of Apple, Google, and Microsoft – and more in competition with Amazon.