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Dropbox's Features Separate it from Cloud Service Competitors

The simplicity and cross-platform compatibility of Dropbox make it a great first step into cloud computing.


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As cloud computing becomes accessible to the average consumer, cloud services have greatly increased in number. Services like iCloud offer a complete PC experience through a Web browser. Others, like Gmail, are mainly used for contact and calendar synchronization to mobile devices. While there are few that find the balance of simplicity and features, Dropbox is one of the best.

At first Dropbox appears to be simple file access via the cloud, but it's ease of use and cross platform accessibility make it a powerful application. Going to Dropbox.com immediately reveals its simplicity.  A login for current users is placed at the top right of the site and big "Download Dropbox" button right in the middle. It's available for Windows, Mac and Linux and can be accessed from every major browser. There are three tiers to choose from, Free, $10 per month and $20 per month. With them you get 2, 50 and 100 GB of cloud storage respectively. If you plan on using the cloud for office documents and a few photos, the free plan will work for most. $10 per month for 50GB is a great price point.

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When you download Dropbox, you get at Dropbox folder to place anywhere on your desktop or laptop computer. Once the folder is installed, any file you place in it will automatically be synchronized to the cloud. What's great is you don't have to choose between uploading a file to the cloud and keeping a hard copy on your computer. Your files are still local and they’re duplicated to the cloud without having to think about it. Any change to the file made on your computer or in the cloud will also be synchronized automatically.



The automatic synchronization also makes Dropbox a great backup service. If you get in the habit of placing most of your files in the Dropbox folder, you’ll have an up-to-date backup for your files all the time. When you're away from your physical computer, accessing these files is just as easy using Dropbox.com. Any files in the cloud can be downloaded through the web browser, and you can manually upload files as well. From Dropbox.com, you can easily share files via e-mail or make them public for collaboration, even large files.

Another strength of Dropbox is its mobile device access. With a free iPhone and iPad app, you can view, share or download any file from your Dropbox. There are other third-party apps that can access Dropbox files. “Print n Share,” available on the iPhone or iPad, can browse your Dropbox and save files locally to your device. From here, the app can print your documents to any wireless or network connected printer. Files can be exported to third-party PDF viewers, FTP apps, and iBook’s. Using the Dropbox app also allows sharing of any file via e-mail directly from the device. Besides Apple devices, Dropbox also makes a native application for all Android phones, giving you viewable and sharing access to all your files.

With its many advantages over the competition, Dropbox still has shortcomings. There is no contact or calendar sync, something that’s available through Apple’s MobileMe, Gmail and other services. It doesn’t give you a full desktop-like experience through the web. When you log into some services, like iCloud, it gives you a full desktop, start menu, music and video player, calendar, contacts, and even “installable” applications. There are office style apps for iCloud that allow you to compose full word documents while in a web browser. These kinds of features are absent from Dropbox, and while they add functionality, they also create complexity which may turn some users off.

The simplicity and cross-platform compatibility of Dropbox make it a great first step into cloud computing. Other cloud services have a free trial period and then require you to purchase access. Dropbox gives you 2GB of storage for free, forever. If you’re looking for an automated backup service, this is the cheapest you’ll find. And if you’re a mobile businessman or road warrior, Dropbox makes cloud services affordable and accessible regardless of the platform you use. This is definitely one of the best cloud services available today, and worthy of your attention.



   
Steven S. Warren is a writer in Florida. He is the author of The VMware Workstation 5 Handbook and held the Microsoft MVP award for 8 consecutive years. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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