I’ve been talking a lot recently to cloud storage, cloud synchronization and cloud backup vendors (all variations on a theme but they all have a different emphasis to what they do).

Recently I had a couple of opportunities to talk with Dropbox, first with founder Drew Houston, and later with recently appointed SVP Marketing and Sales, Adam Gross.

First some history, Dropbox, founded in 2007 out of the Y Combinator is a file sharing and synchronization product now backed by Sequoia Capital and Accel Partners. In its first seven months it grew impressively – expanding from 100000 users to 1 million. In the past seven months it’s continued its stellar rise, having north of 3 million users now.

When I asked Houston to differentiate his product from the other offerings, he did so by making two comparisons:

  1. The big boys haven’t made a product that users really love
  2. Dropbox is (in his opinion) far simpler than the other startup offerings

I took a deeper dive when talking to Gross, who parsed their product in terms of situational storage, and pointed out that the metric of importance to Dropbox is the number of devices per person – while today that stands at two for many people (PC and smartphone), Gross recounted his experience at this years CES show where almost every product on display had a network connection – it’s when this vision of hyper connectedness is realized that Dropbox sees itself really starting to change the way things happen.

At face value, cloud storage is kind of.. boring. I asked Gross what takes a seven year SFDC veteran into a startup like Dropbox. Gross went on to describe his own personal opinion that in the future, successful online storage will be a sort of a mesh that contextualizes the data passing through is into something of relevance to any particular device. He talked of data that will be:

ubiquitous and seamlessly available no matter what device is being used

The holy grail then is a kind of semantic nirvana where. for example, I could view a recipe on my online storage platform and my refrigerator can automatically evaluate what ingredients I have and what I need to buy and then pass that information onto my smartphone or directly to an e-tailer. It’s this sort of vision that keeps the Dropbox crew inspired.

Of course all that is decades (or at least a decade) away – until then Dropbox need to create a product that people actually want to use, and somehow figure out how to make some money out of people using it. To this end, beyond the aspirational discussion above, prospective users need to know how Dropbox works as a product. Well it works just fine – like other offerings of this type I’ve reviewed – Dropbox does a stellar job of just doing what it does in the background – it just works. Of course this is something of a barrier to uptake – Dropbox is remarkable quite simply becuase it is unremarkable – it’s the sort of product people forget about (until it isn’t available any more!)

In terms of dollars, Dropbox uses a freemium approach. A 2GB account is free while it’s $10 and $20 for the step up to 50GB and 100GB respectively. As a comparison, Syncplicity, whilch also has a free 2GB account, is $15 for 50GB (it has to be said that Syncplicity is integrated with web apps such as Google docs).

I have Dropbox and Syncplicity running side by side on my three laptops and one desktop – and they both worked fine. I also use SugarSync from time to time – you can’t say I don’t have all my bases covered! There were the usual hassles when folders got shifted – from time to time I’d have to perform a complete sync. Most of this has to do with user interference rather than a failing of the products per se.

So who will “win”? Well luckily for all concerned this is a big space and is in no way a zero sum game. There’s plenty of room for all concerned to carve out a niche. Most important will be for the vendors to define exactly what their message is, stick to that message and execute well. Watch this space.

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Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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