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Dropbox, Google Drive, Apple iCloud, Microsoft SkyDrive; maybe they’re not apples after all?

Cloud storage product Dropbox is one of those tools that users tend to rave about. It’s deceptively simple. It’s pretty reliable. The value proposition is immediately apparent. It has paid tiers of usage that bring additional storage but (like other freemium beacons such as Evernote) the free offering is rich enough to be compelling, engaging, and valuable. However, as Apple, Google and Microsoft start bundling very similar capabilities right into their latest operating systems, how can Dropbox (or any of its many peers) manage to keep attracting new customers?

Maybe all the articles and blog posts that lump these products together and label them as ‘just’ alternative cloud storage solutions are missing the point? Maybe they’re addressing fundamentally different problems, and maybe that offers room for differentiation as the market becomes clearer.

The late Steve Jobs once, famously, described Dropbox as ‘a feature, not a product.’ A feature for which he was apparently willing to part with as much as $800 million, but still just a feature. And, from Apple’s perspective, cloud storage is just a feature. It’s a feature that strengthens the Apple product ecosystem. It’s a feature that makes it that little bit harder to seriously consider buying a non-Apple tablet or computer when you already own an Apple phone. All your data is available on all of your devices. All of your music is available on all of your devices. Diary entries made on one device automatically appear on all of the others. It’s magical. It’s genuinely useful. And it’s a concept that is ridiculously easy to sell to prospective customers. Those customers are buying an iPhone or an iPad or an iMac, and they’re loving glass and aluminium, but the (allegedly) seamless cloud stuff going on behind the scenes is a very effective means of dissuading an existing Apple customer from straying toward the latest shiny alternative from Amazon or Google or Microsoft. The latest Lumia has tiles? So what. You’d have to copy your data onto it manually!

Microsoft’s SkyDrive and Google’s Chrome OS incarnation of Drive are essentially the same. They’re convergence plays, intended to make today’s devices as sticky as possible, and to ensure that future devices from the same stable are current customers’ first choice. And, as Jobs said, they’re features. They’re another badge, handed out to members of the tribe of Apple/ Microsoft/ Chrome|Android and worn with pride.

Growth in Dropbox registered users (numbers from Dropbox)

With over 100,000,000 users, a valuation in the billions of dollars, and investment in excess of $250 million, Dropbox remains a force to be reckoned with. It would be easy to suggest that the arrival of iCloud et al has simply removed Dropbox’s market overnight, but the number of registered users doubled in the six months to November of this year. It took over a year for the previous doubling of user numbers, from 25 to 50 million. SkyDrive, Google Drive and iCloud were all available.

Nevertheless, Dropbox does face a challenge. Early adopters and engaged users already consciously opt for services like Dropbox’s. But the vast majority of potential users, when looking for a cloud storage solution, will surely just switch on the one that their device is already configured with. In other words, iCloud, Drive, or SkyDrive. The market of users who will take this easy route must be far larger than the market of users who will go out and download something else when they don’t have to. But — and this may ultimately play to Dropbox’s advantage — the mass market of default-choosing users is probably almost entirely populated by people who will never hit the limit on the free storage that Dropbox offers them. They will take, and they will consume, and they will be a cost, but they’re very unlikely to ever pay Dropbox any money. The customers who care enough to go looking for alternative solutions, on the other hand, probably have the mindset or the storage requirements to part with cash. Dropbox’s conversion rates should rise, leading to slower growth on that overall user graph but a healthier balance sheet.

Ironically, perhaps the biggest potential market for future Dropbox growth is also one that is increasingly being squeezed. iCloud, Drive, and (to a lesser degree) SkyDrive appeal to individuals and small companies with enlightened IT procurement policies. They appeal to people with the power to choose (and the budget to afford) a set of devices that can and will work together seamlessly. But for the great mass of enterprise employees, spending their own money on a tablet or a smartphone and then trying to find a workflow that shares data between them and the bland Windows laptop handed to them by their employer, Dropbox must seem the answer to their prayers.

Except, of course, that enterprise CIOs are (understandably) terrified about data loss and they are cracking down hard on employee use of consumer cloud storage solutions. Dropbox’s fledgling business offering is limited at best, and ‘enterprise Dropbox’ offerings like Oxygen Cloud, Egnyte and GroupLogic are snapping at the company’s heels with a raft of CIO-friendly capabilities around audit, permissions, and more. For the CIO, and the business, these solutions make an awful lot of sense and deliver an awful lot of value.

But for the poor employee with a personal iPad and a company Dell? They probably still want their Dropbox…


Disclosure: I use the premium versions of Dropbox and Evernote every single day. They are invaluable core parts of my workflow across multiple devices. I pay for them, just like the rest of you. I also make some use of the free storage allowance offered by Box, Google’s Drive, Apple’s iCloud and Amazon’s CloudDrive.

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Paul Miller works at the interface between the worlds of Cloud Computing and the Semantic Web, providing the insights that enable you to exploit the next wave as we approach the World Wide Database.

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