The promise and perils of replacing your hard drive with Dropbox

Dropbox CEO Drew Houston talked a big game this week when he announced new ways for apps to save and load user data.

More than just a set of developer tools, Houston billed the new Dropbox Platform as a way to “replace the hard drive.” Dropbox Platform is supposed to provide easier ways to store your files in the cloud, with simple buttons that developers can add to their apps. It can also let apps save their own data across platforms, so your work in an Android app can carry over to iOS, and vice versa. 

“Today,” Houston said, “the hard drive goes away.”

Houston’s grand proclamations certainly made for some great headlines. But as Dropbox does its best to eliminate the storage woes of the post-PC era, it may also create new headaches when it comes to storing more of our lives in the cloud.

Making it mindless

It’s easy to see what Dropbox is trying to accomplish. The company wants to make sure you never have to worry about whether you saved your work on your iPhone, Nexus 7, or Windows PC–similar to what Microsoft is trying to do with SkyDrive, but extending beyond the Windows ecosystem. With Dropbox, your data will always follow you, so you don’t even have to think about it.

Dropbox’s existing apps and desktop sync tools are only half of the equation. The new tools for developers are the other half.

One of these developer tools is dubbed Datastore, and it’s basically a way for apps to save their data to Dropbox’s servers. An obvious example is gaming: Stop playing a game on your Android phone, and Dropbox could let you resume on an iPad. Datastore could also make sense for drawing apps, task managers, notation apps, and expense managers–anything where working across multiple devices is necessary. Users get an easy way to sync their data through a single online account, and developers don’t have to do as much work.

“The main problem is that there aren’t cross-platform options today,” said Jon Peppers, a senior application developer with Hitcents, which makes mobile games and custom enterprise apps. “If we have an iPhone app, we can save stuff in iCloud, and that would probably work great. But if we have an Android app too, Google has its own solution to that. Using Dropbox might be a good option so we don’t have to program that same feature twice.”

In fairness, other cross-platform options do exist for gaming, but they’re mainly tied to social networks, such as Facebook and Google+. Dropbox has more potential to expand beyond games, and to give users an option that doesn’t require social sign-ins.

Dropbox also announced a tool called Drop-ins, which allows app users to save and load their files directly to Dropbox. Whereas Datastore deals with app data, Drop-ins deal with documents, photos, and other files that users might want to access directly, letting you both save and access Dropbox-stored files in-app. Developers can add Drop-ins with just a few lines of code, providing a complete interface for browsing the Dropbox file system. 
Again, the idea behind a Drop-in is to reduce friction for users. If developers add “choose from” and “save to” buttons to their apps, users may be encouraged to save more files online, making those files available on any other device.