Once again, coming in about five years late to the game is Google. A Google cloud storage service has been rumored for, well, at least as long as any iProduct before its launch. Google was working on a “GDrive” several years ago, but the project was trashed. In that time about a dozen solid companies have popped up in the space, Dropbox most notably. So here we are with Google playing catchup and building a product that is basically just an equivalent.
As easy as Google makes it to criticize many of their recent moves, launching Drive is a necessity for the company. Drive is very much a catch up product. It’s late to the game and just another instance of Google trying to grab marketshare in as many markets as possible. But there’s a greater intent here - Google Docs is now Google Drive. Unlike Drive’s competitors, documents in Drive are able to be interacted with or even edited from within the web app - and that’s a powerful feature. Of course, it’d be more powerful if it worked. As it is, an RTF file is too complicated to edit in Google Docs without first converting it to the Docs format. That’s fair enough, and Google Docs can even export files as Word documents if you need to email them off somewhere. The issue is that you’re either committing yourself to Docs or effectively using it as Dropbox and on occasion converting back and forth when you’re in a pinch. Worse, Google Docs files on your computer are no more than a link to their location on the Drive website. Not that we go through too many periods without internet nowadays, but it does mean that offline editing of your documents is impossible. In fact, you can barely even view your documents while offline unless you’ve gone out of your way to set up Google Docs Offline Beta, which allows for viewing of recently used files. Editing likely isn’t allowed due to syncing and sharing issues, but this makes it an incredibly less powerful tool for the average user, who probably wouldn’t be running into trouble with asynchronous edits from a collaborator. The (puzzling) Google Play store has apps for Chrome (though I’m not sure that anyone really knows what to do with them) - it’s entirely unreasonable for Google not to have Docs functionality built in to Chrome for offline use. Apparently we all have built in YouTube and Gmail apps in Chrome - or, oh wait, those are just glorified links. Does anyone understand this business model yet? Right, successful app stores make money. But this is a digression.
Google Drive has some good ideas, and if Google can get the whole web access fleshed out, Drive might be the most powerful cloud storage tool available. Right now, it’s only marginally better than Dropbox (although, as one might imagine, Google’s prices for more storage are far cheaper, and that’s going to be a serious issue for Dropbox in the future - Drive also offers five gigs of storage free, which Dropbox is going to need to match). There are plenty of other services out there, and it’s not entirely clear why Dropbox is the king. They weren’t first on the scene, and they don’t offer the finest features either. But perhaps it’s a matter of elegance, and Dropbox’s solution is certainly simple. Google Drive copies it beat for beat, with the addition of a still-not-quite-there(-but-what-did-you-expect,-it’s-Google) web interface. And they might as well. It works great.
What’s more important than the launch of Google Drive (which really, isn’t particularly remarkable in itself compared to the rest of the scene), is the notions for the future of cloud storage. These companies want our hard drives - or something like that. At the very least, they want us committed to their ecosystems. Apple’s iCloud is a solid addition to bridge the iOS/OS X divide. Photo Stream pushes your photos around everywhere, iTunes Match lets you access your music from any iTunes. But in its current state, it’s only a middle man. It takes from one place and pushes to another. That’s great if you don’t ever want to actively sync your own devices. But what about when you want to stream a song without syncing an iTunes account? iCloud largely has no web interface for anything advanced. It’s great at displaying my address book, but there’s no access to your photos or music. It looks like this is how Apple may want the service to continue, but hopefully this isn’t the case. It’s a nice addition, but there’s a lot missing.
On that note, Microsoft’s SkyDrive and Google’s Drive are necessary moves into the space, which is why Drive isn’t merely Google getting into yet another business. Consumers want a seamless experience across their devices. Optimally, a user can access any file of their’s from anywhere else and edit it too. Of course there are issues - if everything is stored locally, then these services aren’t really giving us extra space, they’re just hanging on to our stuff in case we need it from somewhere else. That’s a great service, but it doesn’t make sense to put our entire file structure inside our Drive or Dropbox folder just so that our files can be pushed around to our other devices. Seeing a differentiation between local and cloud only storage would be an interesting move, but this may not be the direction these companies want to take things - being able to do something within our cloud drive might. With Drive’s entry into the space, it’s clear that these companies are going to have to strengthen their offerings within their actual web client. Right now, Dropbox’s client isn’t much more than a file system. iCloud’s isn’t even that.
And so Google launches Drive and nothing has changed in the cloud sync landscape. But it’s a sign of how important it is that these companies have strong cloud offerings in the future, and oddly enough, Google’s Drive might barely edge out the lead. Dropbox won’t be abandoned yet, but the company hasn’t done much over the past several years, and it will be interesting to see how they respond. It’s clear that Google is once again catching up, but this time they’re right to be hopping on board. Someone is going to control our files one day, but it’s not yet clear how it will be done or who will be doing it.