Why I hope Apple never buys Dropbox

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During the Q&A portion of a Macworld/iWorld session last week, an audience member asked: “What not-from-Apple utility do you use the most during a typical workday?” For me, the answer is easy: Dropbox.

Dropbox earns my number one spot because of its versatility and simplicity. If I’m working on an article and want to be certain that the latest version is always on both my Mac Pro and my MacBook, I put the document in Dropbox. If I scan something and my wife wants a copy of it, I drop the file into the Dropbox folder we share. If I use my Mac to get a boarding pass and want it accessible on my iPhone, Dropbox manages that job, too.

Especially on the Mac, Dropbox handles these tasks in such a simple, transparent way that you can barely tell you’re using third-party software at all. It seems as if all you’re doing is moving items in or out of an ordinary Finder folder—except that Dropbox is far from an ordinary folder. Instead, it’s a special location that synchronizes everything in it with every other device, Mac and iOS, that’s logged in to your Dropbox account.

Perhaps you’re thinking that Apple’s iCloud, especially with its Documents in the Cloud feature, is an adequate alternative to Dropbox. Think again. As a result of Apple’s sandboxing and other self-imposed restrictions, iCloud lags far behind Dropbox.

Save a PDF to iCloud in Preview, and you can't open it from your iOS device at all.

On a Mac, you have no Apple-supported way to access iCloud documents from the Finder. Apple intends for you to access iCloud only via Open and Save dialogs. And it allows you to access a given document only from the Open dialog of the app that created it. So, if you use Preview to save a PDF file to iCloud, you won’t be able to locate or open the file in Adobe Reader. Even worse, if you want to view the iCloud-stored PDF file on your iPad, you can’t—because there is no Preview app for iOS that will show the file.

Apple’s iCloud setup means that you can’t group related iCloud-stored documents, created by different apps, into a single folder. iCloud also omits most of Dropbox’s secondary features, such as the ability to recover a deleted file or to share a folder with another user.

By accessing the hidden Mobile Documents folder where your Mac locally stores iCloud documents, you can work around some of these iCloud limitations. But this is hardly an ideal solution.

Apple’s perspective

By this point, you may well be asking: “Why?” Why didn’t Apple design iCloud to be more like Dropbox? Why isn’t it furiously working to redesign it now? Or why doesn’t Apple just purchase Dropbox and then either insert Dropbox features into iCloud or—at a minimum—leave Dropbox as a separate Apple-supported app. Either way, all OS X and iOS users would have instant system-supported access to Dropbox’s features.

Actually, Steve Jobs did try to buy Dropbox years ago, Dropbox’s owners say, and they turned him down. Still, we can fantasize about how wonderful it would be if, in a renewed effort, Apple could convince Dropbox to sell. Except that we would be wrong. The fantasy isn't that Apple might someday acquire Dropbox; the fantasy is that its doing so would work out well.

The reason that iCloud doesn’t function like Dropbox is not that Apple’s engineers aren’t capable of doing a better job. Nor is it that they made decisions about iCloud’s design that they now regret. Apple knew exactly what it was doing and accomplished exactly what it intended. Apple doesn’t want iCloud to work like Dropbox. Instead, Apple is committed to a sandboxed approach that it originally implemented on iOS devices. Rather than loosening restrictions over time, Apple has extended sandboxing to Mac apps sold through the App Store. Limiting user access to where documents are stored and restricting documents to the apps that created them—this is all part of a deliberate strategy by Apple. Similarly, on iOS devices, Apple continues to prohibit users from installing apps that do not come from the App Store or accessing root level files; you need to jailbreak your device to gain such access.

Why is Apple so insistent on sticking to this restrictive approach? The consensus favorable viewpoint is that these prohibitions offer security advantages, better quality control, and a more consistent user interface. Whatever the reasons, limiting user access to software and hardware has been part of Apple’s vision from the earliest days of the Mac. The original Macintosh, in contrast to every other computer at the time, was designed so that the typical user could not open the case. Today’s MacBook Pros with Retina Displays continue this tradition. Kyle Wiens, of iFixit.org, has described them as “the least repairable laptops” he's ever taken apart. While many view this negatively, it is consistent with viewing Apple’s devices as “consumer electronics” rather than “old-style computers.” After all, how often do you want to take apart your flat-screen television?

All of this leads me to conclude that, if Apple did ever buy Dropbox, it would kill Dropbox—after possibly retaining a few of its lesser features for iCloud. It would likely play out similar to the story of Apple and Lala.

Don’t worry

Still, I’m not losing sleep over this possibility. That’s because I don’t think it will ever happen. Apple knows that Dropbox isn’t the only game in town anymore. To be completely successful, Apple would need to start playing Whac-A-Mole, killing each competitor that ascended to replace Dropbox. Apple isn’t going to do this. So it will likely do nothing.

Apple is also unlikely to use updates to OS X and iOS to implement code that prevents Dropbox from working. Doing so would only drive angry users away from Apple’s devices and toward competitors that retain Dropbox support. Given that Dropbox isn't going to be accepted into the Mac App Store anytime soon, Apple can at best simply hope that Dropbox use declines as users increasingly depend on the App Store for all their software.

The bottom line: Don’t expect a significant change from the status quo for the foreseeable future. That’s fine with me. I’ll take the status quo over the most likely alternative. But just in case I’m wrong, and someone at Apple is negotiating with someone at Dropbox even as I write this, I make this plea: “Stop what you’re doing. Now. Walk away from the table. Leave well enough alone.”

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