Where to for Dropbox after the iCloud bombshell?

iCloud

iCloud

It’s no surprise that Dropbox has been frantically working to ship products that aren’t a commodity cloud syncing service… Carousel, its app that strings together and orders all your photos and videos in easily-searchable galleries is, perhaps, the first example. Its acquisition of Mailbox needs to be seen in this light too. Expect more.

Why? Because the price (and value) of bog-standard cloud storage is going to zero. It’s already a commodity. (And the irony is Dropbox helped turn it into one.)

Dropbox retains a monopoly on cloud storage simply because, until now, the (mobile) platform owners have been so bad at it. Cloud storage (and cross-device syncing) on Android is inconsistent. You’d think Google would have this locked down but, because of Android’s openness, smartphone OEMS, mobile network operators and third parties all prioiritise their proprietary cloud storage service on these devices (like ATT&T Locker, Vodafone Cloud, MotoCast). Plus, every now and then an operator or OEM offers a bundled-in premium Dropbox service. (Microsoft’s done okay with Windows Phone, but the platform remains sub-scale in many markets.)

Apple, by comparison, almost ceded cloud storage and sync functionality to Dropbox. Until last week’s WWDC event. Turns out Steve Jobs’ vision of the cloud (with its opaqueness and extreme simplicity) wasn’t quite what we all wanted. And what we tend to forget is that Apple engineers are iPhone, iPad and Mac users too! They experience exactly the same frustrations as every other Apple user!

If you had to sum up the iOS and OSX changes announced at the WWDC keynote in a word, you’d find it very hard not to use the word “cloud”. It’s almost as if Apple listed every major pain point in how consumers use cloud storage and sync and solved every single problem.

  • Photo storage in the cloud with seamless local device access and search? Check.
  • Photo edit synchronisation across devices? Check
  • Sending e-mails with very large attachments? Check.
  • Document storage in the cloud with folders? Check.
  • Cross-platform support on Windows? Check. (It’s not coming to Android or Chrome OS, don’t bother asking)

But one gets the feeling that Apple didn’t think of these features from the perspective of a checklist (or feature comparison with Dropbox). Rather, it spent a lot of time actually considering how its customers use its devices (and technology). The messaging, labelling and integration of many of these features in iOS and OSX will be seamless. Aside from an iCloud Drive label (which most of its customers will intuitively understand), it won’t scream “cloud!”.

The photo app revamp is a massive deal. It means that, unless you have a massive music library, in future you don’t have to buy a 32GB or 64GB iPhone. It solves the conundrum Apple was facing with iPhone storage limits. Did it ever consider shipping a 128GB iPhone? Probably. But then it spent time figuring out what was using all the storage. (Ever-increasing iPhone storage limits would’ve been a never-ending game). Now, photos “just works”. And it’s all about the design (in the truest sense of the word).

It’s going to be interesting to see how Dropbox reacts to what Apple announced in early June. It’s likely that people will simply use Dropbox less and less. Yes, it’ll likely remain installed on people’s laptops, smartphones and tablets, but in the next refresh-cycle, is probably not going to be reinstalled. But, Dropbox won’t sit back and shrivel up into irrelevance. It’s going to react.

Whether it now doubles down on enterprise or consumer remains to be seen (it probably doesn’t have the resources to do both). Expect more differentiation. But how much value can it add on top of an OS-embedded cloud storage and syncing engine? At least the relaxed restrictions (and inter-app communication) in iOS give it a chance.

Jobs was right about one thing. Dropbox is a “feature”, not a product.

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