The Future Of File Storage

Disclaimer: Dropbox has appointed Condoleezza Rice to their board of directors, and while she is a very competent woman I can not in good conscious recommend their service anymore. If you are unaware of Ms. Rice's more egregious offenses you can read them here. If you already use Dropbox and want to voice your opinion on the hiring of Ms. Rice, go here.

In this day and age our files need to move with us. Cloud storage services, like Dropbox, allow us to access our files on different devices, which is a good start, but it isn't enough. For our data to truly move with use it needs to transfer seamlessly between applications. Simple files, like text or pictures, can already do this, what I am talking about more complex types of data. The problem is that many types of data are needlessly stored in proprietary file formats. A standard format for common forms of data needs to be adopted by developers so your data is truly available everywhere. Just to clarify, I am not saying proprietary file types shouldn't exist but developers should have an option to use a standard format for common types of data. The ideas in this post are not that different from what we have now but they could completely change how users interact with their data.

Note: I will be using a to-do list application to illustrate my point throughout the post but this is applicable to many forms of data. Let me define what kind of data almost every to-do list creates; list names, tasks, due dates, notes, etc. All of which needs to be synced.

The Old Way Of Thinking About File Syncing

You create some data in an applications and save it as a file. On a traditional computer it's saved into a folder in a file manager like 'Finder' or 'Windows Explorer'. A skeuomorphic representation of how we stored documents in real life which, to be fair, isn't a terrible system. Then Apple tried to shake things up in iOS and iCloud by getting rid of the file system and storing files directly in the applications that created them. A flawed system, in my opinion, that only restricts our files further. To-do lists perfectly represent the problems with how we store and sync files today.

Syncing To-Do Lists Is Done With:

  • A proprietary syncing service by the developer.
  • iCloud
  • A cloud storage company and stores it as one proprietary file.

Why This Isn't A Great System:

  • You have to find an app with a version for each device you use.
  • Your data is locked into one application.
  • Transferring your data to a new app is a manual, arduous, task.

Almost every to-do list app uses the same data fields, so why can't we easily open a to-do list made in one app in another? For some developers, locking you into their application is a goal but I think for most the reason is that no one has set a standard file type and save structure that any to-do app could support.

What I Am Proposing

Dropbox sets the standard file type and save structure for multiple types of data. Why Dropbox? As a leader in cloud storage it already offers SDK's to developers to use it for syncing files. The new way would work by creating a special folder for your to-do lists, your fitness data, your contacts, etc. Each new type of data gets it's own folder. Applications are then connected to the relevant folder and they then sync themselves to the master folder. Dropbox is the back-end and the applications are how you access your data.

A New Way Of Thinking Of Files

I call it 'file-less data'. A misnomer, but one that will convey a new thought process for un-technological people when thinking about files. Users would simply connect their applications to their relevant folder in Dropbox and the app would populate itself with the data. Users could go into Dropbox and manage their files but it wouldn't be necessary for the most part. Oddly enough this system is sort of based on Apples iOS, and iCloud, storage philosophy. It takes the idea that you access your files through applications instead of a file manager but instead of your files being locked into the applications that created them, the applications just become a window for viewing the files relevant to the app. I should say that this is not an incredibly innovative idea, merely one that expands on what can be done today. Developers have already worked out an ingenious solution for syncing documents using plain text files, Markdown for formatting, and Dropbox. If you are unfamiliar with this system it is awesome. Here is how it works for me:

  • I write all my documents in Markdown, store them in Dropbox, and they are synced to a number of different apps on my Macbook and iOS devices. (Or Android, Windows, Linux, etc)
  • For new apps I log into Dropbox and all of my data is synced to it.
  • I can use whatever app is right for the job. Does the text editor I'm using not have the feature I need? No problem I just switch to one that does.
  • I can try out any writing application I like, with all of my files there.
  • I don't have to worry if the app I use on my iPad has a companion app for my Mac. In fact the one I use the most doesn't. (Editorial for iPad)
  • It frees my data so I'm not thinking about files and where I am storing them. I just log in and everything I have written is there. To reiterate, this system is seriously awesome. (Especially for iOS users because of the limits Apple imposes.)

A More Complex Example

When you create a to-do list in one application it is saved to the to-do folder in Dropbox and any to-do list app can connect to that folder and populate itself with the data. The each 'list name' would be connected to its 'tasks' which would be connected to the meta data for each task. Your data would be available to other applications just as files like pictures or plain text files are today.

Examples Of Other Data Types/Use Cases

  • You bought a device on a new platform, you download the apps you already own, and by logging in all of your data, settings, and customizations are transferred over.

  • Your at school, your phone dies and you have no charger. You need to text your friend to come pick you up but have no idea what their number is so you can't use a strangers phone or call from a landline. In other words your screwed. But wait, your contacts are stored in Dropbox. So you log in on a school computer and find the number you need.

  • You break your phone and get a loaner. It's a different OS but even so Dropbox has the list of apps you use and you can go from Dropbox to the devices app store to download them. What happens if the apps you use aren't available? No problem, you just download similar ones with Dropbox support and not only are all of your files accessible there but anything you add or change is synced. So when you get your device back, your regular apps have all the new data you added.

  • You own devices on different platforms and the app you use for podcasting isn't available on both. You find one with Dropbox support and all of your podcasts get added to your feed but more importantly the meta data, like what episodes you've already listened to and episode play position, is also synced.

The Next Step

A way of storing your personality. The things you like, have seen, are interested in, are stored and can be accessed by applications. Definitely an out of the box idea but one that conforms to my belief that my computers should act as an automatic second brain. An example of this: - You hear about a cool new music suggestion app and by logging into Dropbox it populates the app with the bands you like. How does it know your favourite bands? It looks at your collection of music and uses the meta data for most played. Whenever your log into Dropbox from a new music app you can import these bands with the press of a button and if it is something like Rdio, or Spotify, it adds all of them to your collection.


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