Product Idea — Dropbox Reloaded

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iStock_000017711962XLarge grass sky clouds ideaiStock_000017711962XLarge grass sky clouds ideaI just had this thought just now and I thought I have to start writing down these “product ideas” — which are just random ideas of small improvements for various products that come to my mind every now and then — as otherwise nothing will happen. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect that simply writing these ideas down will trigger a whole revolution in the products and companies I’m talking about, but if these reach the eyes and the ears of some people who thought of the same improvement to a product, then perhaps we can build some critical mass and get these add-ons to the products we love — or would like to love. After all, people pay good money to get the pulse on how their products and ideas perform “out there”, so why not take the initiative and give it to them, when we feel they could do with a bit of help?

With that in mind, I’ve started this new Category on my blog labelled Product Ideas — where I will be throwing anything from ideas of products (listen up all you Silicon Valley entrepreneurs wannabe who are still searching for that breakthrough idea! 😉 ) to (what I perceive to be) useful addendums to existing products. Feel free to (re)tweet these, facebook them, or forward them to the people in charge of these products (if you know them) — or just discard them right away as madness; my theory still stands about if you don’t voice these you will never get heard…

First in the series is related to Dropbox — which I personally love as a free service for keeping documents in sync in between a few machines, not to mention the fact that they are also always safely backed up in “The Cloud”! This idea came via another startup which contacted me today to complete a survey about whether there is space in the market for another file sharing/storing/etc idea. I think they were also interested in hiring me, unfortunately that wasn’t on the cards…

Regardless though, I felt their survey was a bit rubbish — they asked a few multi-choice questions but left very little (if any!) space for free comments — and as such input of ideas. Unluckily for them, I couldn’t type all of these in a tiny text box of only 255 characters in that online survey… Luckily for me, it means I can easily now put all of these ideas on my website… And last but not least, unluckily for the ideas, it probably means no one will ever read them 🙂

Anyway, so I started thinking: what would make a new file sharing/storing product unique? What would make me give up using Dropbox and switching to something like that? Or, the other way around: what would definitely nail me to using Dropbox? I mean currently I use Dropbox for very few documents which I need on a few stations synchronized — mostly to do with a few application settings believe it or not. Also small documents like my CV / resume (in a few formats) and a bunch of Excel sheets with various data to which occasionally I need quick access to (finances, regular payments etc).

Now I store a lot of my backups and documents which I don’t access from everywhere on S3 — it’s cheap as chips and there are lots and lots of free or cheap tools which allow you access to this. I’m not going to pay big bucks to Dropbox to store 50 Gb worth of data which I only access once or twice a year — and also “suffer” of daily long sync’s of this data — however I don’t mind paying a couple of bucks a month to Amazon to store this and access whenever I want. In most cases, as I said, I access these docs from S3 on the same machine all the time, as such I have all the tools to mount quickly my S3 as a drive and use it as such; however, should I need to access it from somewhere else, I always have the Amazon HTTP Console — rather unfriendly to use at times but at least it allows me to download the document and view/edit and then even upload back.

Getting back to Dropbox, because the documents I upload on it are replicated to a bunch of machines, it means that I need to have all the software required to read or edit these documents on each machine. That’s not a problem with the likes of configuration files which are just simple plain text files, and I can edit them with anything from Microsoft Word, Text Wrangler, WordPad etc to the likes of Notepad, nano, vi and so on.  The problem gets a bit more complex when dealing with custom document types — and Microsoft Word is one of them: if you have MS Word version X on one machine, version Y on another one and version Z on a 3rd one, then you have to start remembering to save each document using the lowest common denominator — otherwise, at least one of the machines won’t be able to read (and edit) the documents. You can of course decide to go for something like PDF, for which is easy to find a free reader for any platform (including mobile!), however, what do you use for editing?

Things get even more complicated when you throw in a mobile in the game as well. While there’s tons of open source software one can install on a laptop for various documents, unfortunately as of yet things are a bit more limited when it comes to mobile. Even though, realistically, in most cases, on a mobile you just want to view documents and then print or email them, it still means you need a “viewer” app for each document format.

Now, BlackBerry has solved that issue by having all of their attachment downloads through their servers — which allowed them to convert the format on the fly into something your phone could read. That was a great piece of functionality if you got a document in Word 2011 format and you only had Word 2000 on your machine — and that happened to me a few times: simply have a view of the document on my BlackBerry and if it looked alright, then I could simply forward the email to relevant parties without having to worry about what I’m going to use on my laptop to view the document.

So there you go Dropbox, that’s what I think would make your product definitely more usable: have a facility which allows me to initiate a “preview download” request from my Dropbox — that would just render the document for viewing (and printing) on my machine — make it PDF since it’s a universal format? This would save me the hassle of having software everywhere I use Dropbox, for each document type. (Like I said, that is annoying and sometimes impossible — or expensive! — when throwing a mobile device in the setup.) This way I can have one single machine which has Microsoft PowerPoint 2011 on, but I can show my presentations to everyone anywhere — including on the go, on my mobile.

And since I’m talking about mobile — here’s another annoyance with Dropbox on my mobile: to get to a document, I need to start the app and then navigate to the file I need and download it. How about instead you have a virtual device driver so my whole Dropbox is just “mounted” as a virtual SD card? And whenever I want to access the file simply do a sync/download prior to opening it! This way my whole Dropbox contents is accessible to every single app on my mobile, and I don’t have to go through the tedious task of starting the app each time. The app, I guess, would still have to be started — but only once, then would go in the background and monitor file activity — follow each write with a push and perform a pull before each read!

These 2 I guess would either make me consider another Dropbox-like service — or keep me on using Dropbox. I probably wouldn’t mind paying for this service come to think of it — because like I said, it saves me the hassle of having tons of software installed on a lot of devices (for some of those I might even have to pay licenses you know! 😉 ). Maybe package this deal with some more space in a monthly/yearly subscription or whatever and you might see your revenue going up?

Anyway, I’m not suggesting here how Dropbox should change their business model — merely just a bunch of ideas on what might make this a better service. Or, if Dropbox is not listening, to the startup I spoke with today, this is what would make me dump Dropbox for your service.

Let the race begin! 😉