Dropbox’s new collaboration and smart file-syncing features promise to boost your productivity
Paper is finally available to all, while Project Infinite enters beta as Smart Sync.
By Blair Hanley Frank
Dropbox kicked off its 2017 product launches with a pair of major announcements Monday aimed at improving users’ productivity at work. The cloud storage company announced the general availability of its Paper document collaboration service, along with the closed beta of a Smart Sync feature that gives users easy access to every file shared with them in Dropbox.
Paper, first announced in 2015, gives users a shared workspace to work with one another on documents. It’s designed to be the product people use for collaborative tasks like brainstorming and taking meeting notes.
Smart Sync is the official name for a feature that Dropbox unveiled last year as Project Infinite. The idea behind it is simple: users store more files in Dropbox than they want to sync to each individual computer they work with.
Rather than requiring them to use the storage service’s web interface, Smart Sync shows users placeholder versions of those files in the MacOS Finder or Windows Explorer. When a user goes to open a file that’s not stored locally, it’s downloaded from Dropbox’s servers.
Monday’s announcements are part of Dropbox’s overall push to make its product more useful and appealing to business users, as it competes in the crowded cloud storage market.
Rob Baesman, the head of product at Dropbox, said in an interview that the company thinks people will reach for Paper as a tool to help collate information from different sources and kick-start their process of working on an idea.
“We see Paper really being this place to allow teams to collaborate across all their information,” he said in an interview. “When we look at the challenges many of our customers are facing, we see so much information fragmentation and it being difficult [for them] to not only locate but collaborate across all these different sources.”
Baesman said that Paper isn’t meant to replace a traditional productivity suite like Microsoft Office or Google Drive. Instead, he sees it as a starting point for a “lifecycle of ideas” that includes other applications.
To that end, Dropbox launched new task management functionality in Paper that makes it easy for users to assign people to tasks and set due dates for them, all within a Paper document.
Dropbox isn’t the only storage company pushing a live document collaboration service to its users. Last week, Box unveiled a new standalone version of Notes, which offers much of the same functionality Paper does.
What’s still largely untested is whether the vision of a collaboration product like Paper will actually prove commercially successful. It may be challenging for these companies to unseat traditional productivity systems. However, Dropbox says it already has several customers who began relying on the service while it was in beta, like InVision, Shopify and Getaround.
Right now, Smart Sync is only available to Dropbox Business customers through the company’s Early Adopter Program. It makes sense for Business users, since they’re likely to share files with other people inside an organization that don’t require constant access.
The new feature dovetails well with Dropbox Business’s existing Team Folders functionality, which lets administrators set up shared folders that multiple people have access to. Syncing a massive team folder down to each user’s computer would take a lot of hard drive space, and Smart Sync means that people can easily see files without all of the storage space concerns.
While it’s a useful feature, Smart Sync is not without controversy. In order to provide that functionality on the Mac, Dropbox needs to use a kernel extension that could potentially cause performance or security issues. The company argues that it has battle-tested Smart Sync internally, and it shouldn’t cause problems.
IT managers, however, will be able to control whether or not their organizations opt in to Smart Sync.
“So, if for whatever reason, in your business, you’re not sure about that level of functionality, you can turn it off,” Baesman said. “And, no problem, Dropbox will continue to work the way it always had, without Smart Sync.”
At launch, Smart Sync will be available for users running MacOS 10.9 and Windows 7. Baesman refused to provide a technical explanation for why the feature was being kept to only business users at this point. He did say that Dropbox is evaluating what to do about bringing Smart Sync to consumers, but that the company isn’t announcing anything about its plans at this point.
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