The Everything Drive
Why Google Drive, Dropbox, and other online file-storage services will be better together.
Photograph by Google.
Rumors that Google would get into the online storage game have been swirling longer than some of its rivals have been in business. The first bit of evidence appeared online in 2004, the year Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. Every few years since then, Google acolytes have stumbled upon fresh proof that the GDrive was imminent. And yet it never came. Even though Google seemed to be in a better position than anyone to launch a personal file-hosting service—it runs acres of data centers, it fetishizes “the cloud,” and its corporate future depends on people accessing their stuff through the Web—Google bizarrely resisted creating a simple drive in the sky.
Eventually, people stopped waiting. In 2008, a start-up called Dropbox made it drop-dead easy to store and access files from all of your devices. A host of other start-ups, including Box.com and SugarSync, make similar drives in the cloud. And it’s not just a business for little guys: Microsoft launched its file hosting service, SkyDrive, in 2007, and has steadily improved the program since then. This week it announced several new features, including a Dropbox-like Windows app and slick new versions for the Mac and iOS. Yes, it’s true—Microsoft now offers a better cloud service for your Apple devices than anything made in Cupertino.
Now, finally, Google is joining the party. On Tuesday morning, the search company announced its own storage service called Google Drive. To describe this as anti-climactic is to do a disservice to anti-climax. Google says that when you put a file into your Google Drive, it will be available everywhere, including PCs and Macs, iPhones, iPads, and Android devices. In other words, it’s just like Dropbox and SkyDrive. But Google gives you 5 gigabytes of storage space for free, whereas Dropbox gives you only two gigs. That sounds fantastic … until you realize that SkyDrive gives you seven gigabytes gratis. Google says it offers several ways for you to collaborate with other people—Google Drive is built as an extension to Google Docs—which is nice. But it lacks the amazing sharing feature that Dropbox unveiled this week: Every file in your Dropbox now carries a link that you can share with anyone, even people who don’t use Dropbox. It’s the simplest way to share large files I’ve ever seen.
To be fair, there are some unique features built into Google Drive. For instance, the service gives you a nice search engine that scans and recognizes text in your image files—if you take a photo of a newspaper and later search for a headline, you’ll find it. Google is also willing to sell you more storage space than any of its competitors. If you want to, you can buy up to 16 terabytes of space for your stuff—enough for about 5,000 high-definition movies—for the bargain-basement price of $800 a month. More reasonably, you can get 25 gigs of space for just $2.49 a month.
But don’t pay Google for extra space. Indeed, if you’re paying anyone for online storage, you’re a chump. The beautiful thing about all this competition between online storage services is that you don’t have to choose one of them. These services are actually better—that is, cheaper—when you use them together.
Google, Microsoft, Dropbox, SugarSync, and box.com all give away some space for free, and then ask you to pay a few dollars a month for more. But how much space do you need? I’ve been using Dropbox for years and have never run against its 2GB limit. Dropbox has lots of paying customers, so clearly some people want more space. But probably not that much more—Microsoft says that 99.94 percent of SkyDrive users store less than 7GB of stuff. On the off chance you need even more space than that, all you’ve got to do is allocate your files between all these services, maximizing the amount of free storage that everyone’s giving away. Between all these firms, there’s almost 25 GB of completely free online storage available for the taking. And chances are that number will grow—as the cost of disk drives plummets, and as competition rises, they’ll all have to offer more and more free storage.
For Microsoft and Google, this state of affairs isn’t so bad. Neither expects to make much money from file hosting. They both consider online storage an adjunct to their other products—SkyDrive makes Windows devices better, while Google Drive keeps people using Google’s ad-supported software. But for cloud-storage startups like Dropbox, the rise of competing storage services could be terrible. Right now, my SkyDrive and Google Drive folders sit empty next to my Dropbox. When I hit my 2GB limit, all I’ve got to do is switch over to one of the other two—and, just like that, Dropbox’s $4 billion valuation will go up in smoke.
If I were Dropbox chief Drew Houston—or another hungry startup entrepreneur—I’d work on a way to cobble all these rival services into one super file-storage service. As users begin to store their files across a host of different online services, keeping track of where you put what could get a little hairy. Are your family pictures in your SkyDrive, or your Dropbox? Did you store that important tax document in your Google Drive, or somewhere else—and, if so, where?
Imagine a service that kept track of all these different drives for you. Call it your SugarDropSkyGoogDriveBox—or, actually, let’s call it your Everything Drive. This would serve as a front end for all the free space you’ve signed up for online. When you save something to your Everything Drive, the service will automatically choose whether to put the document on your Dropbox, your Google Drive, your SkyDrive, or elsewhere, depending on where you’ve got free space. When you need that file again, just click on it in your Everything Drive (which you’d be able to see on all your devices) and it will load up instantly—and you’d never know which online service it’s actually stored on.
All of the major storage services offer access to developers, so, as a technical matter, creating the Everything Drive should be possible. All we need now is a smart programmer to build it. What do you say, engineers?
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.