Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Stop, Drop, and Rock and Roll

Online personal storage has been around for years. Yahoo has had its Briefcase for eons. XDrive, a service of AOL, has also been around awhile. EMC just recently bought yet another on-line storage and backup company called Mozy. So you would think that another entry in this rather crowded field would be a cause for overwhelming ennui.

Happily, that is not the case with Dropbox, one of the latest entries into the on-line personal storage market. It's not so much what they do - all the other companies in the market perform similar functions - but the way they do it. Like XDrive and Mozy, Dropbox has a client interface for your desktop that allows the on-line storage to appear as a desktop folder or drive. Unlike XDrive and Mozy, Dropbox also supports this functionality for Macintosh computers without having to add additional software such as Adobe Air. Like XDrive and Briefcase, Dropbox has a web interface that allows you to access these files from any browser. Unlike those products, Dropbox has a crisp, clean interface. It's sort of the Sauvignon Blanc of interfaces - refreshing and somewhat tart. Briefcase in particular is in need of a face lift. It looks positively pre-2000. It's the Bordeaux that is long past its peak.

Unlike any of the above, Dropbox is fast or at least appears to be. It is very good at caching files so that they seem to be local in terms of performance. Even when you upload a lot of files at once, it is incredibly fast compared to other offerings.

Sharing files with others is very easy too. In fact, this is the strength of Dropbox. Let's say you have a big file that you want to send to someone. You can e-mail it and risk it choking as it pushes through yours and the recipients e-mail gateways. With Dropbox, you can simply upload the file and make it available though a browser link. If they also use Dropbox, you can share it them and it looks like a local or network drive, no matter whether they are on a Windows machine or a Mac. If you change or delete the file, those changes are made immediately available, just as if you changed them on a file server.

In the end, that's what Dropbox really is - an Internet file server. You can do all the things one normally does with shared and private drives on a local file server. It even supports drag and drop well. Compared to Dropbox, all the others seem slow and clunky.

About the only thing that XDrive and Mozy have that Dropbox doesn't is an automatic backup client built into the software. Since this "feature" does not work particularly well for either of these services, that's not much of a lack. Your usual tools including SyncToy work just fine with Dropbox.

Overall, Dropbox is an excellent on-line, personal storage service. I only hope they can figure out how to make money at it. Maybe Yahoo would like to buy it... if they aren't gobbled up themselves

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Zowie Zoho

A couple of months ago I wrote about how much I hated online office applications. It seemed to me that in their haste to stick it to Microsoft, online Office vendors such as Google had created a poor imitation of the world famous productivity suite. The applications were brain damaged - lacking in basic features, visually unappealing, and without a facility for working unconnected.

At the time I lumped Zoho in with the rest. I wish I hadn't. I have spent the last month or so using Zoho Writer for basic writing tasks, especially blogging. While it is not nearly as full featured as Word or Writer, it handles most basic writing tasks well.

Zoho Writer also allows you to work offline, a critical feature to me. It downloads some number of documents to your local storage and allows you to continue to work unconnected. Afterwards, Zoho syncs up your files with the online documents. Zoho also has complete versioning (which makes syncing easy) and includes various on-line collaboration functions. It does a fair job of exporting most important file types from major competitive applications and a very good job at exporting to Blogger. It allows you to create PDFs, a feature that Word still doesn't have. One minor annoyance: Zoho Writer lacks the spellcheck-as-you-go feature found in most word processors and disables the one on Firefox. That's a bit annoying but not fatal.

One thing I find fascinating is how Zoho provides the offline capablity. It's uses Google Gears! Zoho does something that Google Docs doesn't do yet using Google technology. That's practically the definition of ironic.

I haven't spent much time with the other Office-like applications. Zoho has all the usual suspects. I am especially hesitant to say anything positive about the spreadsheet module since few are as good as Excel including the one. The same is true for the PowerPoint clone. I'm not so impressed with Openoffice.orgs Impress.

I have to admit, at least for word processors, I have changed my mind about online office apps. While not perfect, Zoho Writer is a decent web-based word processor. It is a rival to Microsoft Works and a viable alternative to Word for those who need to do simple writing tasks. I wouldn't write a book using Zoho but then again, most of us rarely write a book.