Rethinking File Access

Where do your documents live?

The answer used to be “on this computer” or “on the network file share” and sometimes “on this flash drive.” The widespread availability of cloud services that offer massive storage capacity combined with the diminishing size of local hard drives due to the high adoption of tablets and extremely lightweight computers means that those lines are not so clear now. One challenge that goes with this is knowing what you have access to on the device you are using; one approach is to do a side-by-side comparison of a local drive and a non-local drive to identify differences, much like you’d see in an FTP client. Another approach is to show everything in whatever view or listing you are looking at, and use some visual differentiator to show local versus non-local files, much like what iTunes displays for local music and that which you haven’t downloaded to the current device.

Microsoft took the second approach with the consumer OneDrive client in Windows 8.1, but subsequently removed it due to a number of technical challenges and disgruntled reactions from some users. If you want to see a passionate debate on this topic, just mention “placeholders” and “OneDrive” in the same sentence; you’ll get passionate advocacy from some, and passionate hatred of the idea from others. Apparently, Microsoft is going to try again in a near-term update to Windows.

Anyway, Dropbox is trying in the even nearer term, with an announcement two days ago of Project Infinite:

With Project Infinite, we’re addressing a major issue our users have asked us to solve. The amount of information being created and shared has exploded, but most people still work on devices with limited storage capacity. While teams can store terabyte upon terabyte in the cloud, most individuals’ laptops can only store a small fraction of that. Getting secure access to all the team’s data usually means jumping over to a web browser, a clunky user experience at best.

Project Infinite will enable users to seamlessly and securely access all their Dropbox files from the desktop, regardless of how much space they have available on their hard drives. Everything in the company’s Dropbox that you’re given access to, whether it’s stored locally or in the cloud, will show up in Dropbox on your desktop. If it’s synced locally, you’ll see the familiar green checkmark, while everything else will have a new cloud icon.

Placeholders – check. Windows – check. Mac – check. Generally available – not yet.

I don’t know if it’s the “definitively correct” approach to showing local files and cloud files, but (a) it’s better than not knowing what else is there, and (b) we do need to do something different. Let the experimentation continue …

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