Dropbox for Business adds new features, risks thwarting its key advantage

dropbox sync
Credit: Ian Lamont

Dropbox for Business announces useful new control and collaboration features, but feature creep threatens to mar the service’s trademark simplicity.

This morning, Dropbox announced a slew of new security, search, and developer features for its Dropbox for Business file-storage and sharing product. The new features come on top of the company’s recent release of Streaming File Sync, which allows the service to start syncing files before they’re fully uploaded, speeding up the process for large files.

At first glance, the new features sound like clear improvements. Full-text search, for example, is a no-brainer, making it much easier to find the file you’re looking for even when you don’t know the name.  More flexible and granular security options are also welcome: View-only permissions for shared folders let you set who can view or edit files within a shared folder, while passwords and expirations for shared links make it safer to share files.

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On the collaboration front, Dropbox’s Project Harmony lets team members see who else is using a shared Microsoft Office file. And Dropbox is bringing its Office document previews to Android.

For developers, a Shared Folder API offers access to the core functionality of shared folders, while the Document Preview API can put document previews feature directly into third-party apps.

These are all useful features, especially full-text search, and as they roll out over the next weeks and months they should help Dropbox extend its reach into the enterprise as it competes with Box and other traditional and next-generation storage vendors.

See also: Review: Box beats Dropbox - and all the rest - for business 

Dropbox is winning the storage wars - get used to it

Ironically, though, I’m starting to worry that all of Dropbox’s powerful new features could end up eroding the product’s biggest competitive advantage - its drop-dead simple ease of use. (I’m not worried about full-text search, though. Did I mention how useful I think that is?)

At least one person I know of - an experienced Dropbox user in their personal life - accidentally filled up his entire hard drive when installing Dropbox for business. He didn’t know about the Selective Sync capability, which hadn’t been a problem with his personal account. But the Dropbox for Business account was much bigger, and threatened to overwhelm his laptop’s available storage space.

For the first time, as well, I’ve been hearing about Dropbox training classes. Informal to be sure, but Dropbox is all about leveraging consumer-grade ease of use with enterprise functionality. When I spoke with Ross Piper, the company's vice president of enterprise strategy, late last year, he stressed that Dropbox prioritizes users ahead of IT (see Inside Dropbox’s plans for enterprise domination), and I think that’s absolutely the right approach.

I haven’t used the new features yet (many are not yet available), but I’m concerned that the compromises may be more severe than anticipated. If Dropbox risks sullying its consumer-style ease of use in the process, the innovative company may end up little different from its traditional (and traditionally hard-to-use) competitors in the enterprise market.

That would be a shame, as I’m counting on companies like Dropbox to help make complex business software as simple and easy to use as the consumer software we all know and love.

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