The secret to Dropbox's runaway success: Making it look easy

Drew Houston will help you. Credit: Matt Rosoff

When I was a kid, I'd occasionally watch baseball games on TV with my dad, an unrepentant Dodgers fan. I remember seeing an outfielder chase down a fly ball with a crazy diving catch. I made some comment about how awesome it was, and how I wished I could do the same thing.

My dad was less impressed. "The really good players make it look easy," he told me.

That exchange came back to me yesterday, as Dropbox CEO Drew Houston presented new tools for developers at DBX 2013, the company's first-ever developer conference. The features themselves didn't seem huge or ground-breaking.

The most notable, the new Datastores API, will let developers store application data in Dropbox's cloud, then automatically sync that information between instances of the app on different devices. Dropbox showed a calendar "to do" list, or the last-completed level in a game, as examples of the kind of data they envision being stored there.

Datastores sounds similar in nature to something like Amazon S3, which lets developers store simple objects in the cloud. But Dropbox's platform ambitions seem so paltry compared with Amazon's or Google's or Microsoft's -- it's not trying to build an entire platform as a service or host relational databases or offer cloud compute. It just wants to make syncing basic app information between mobile platforms easier.

[See also: Dropbox wants to replace local storage, but it's not quite there yet.]

I had the same reaction to the Chooser and Saver Drop-Ins, components that mobile developers can add to let end-users attach and store files using Dropbox's cloud. (Chooser has been around since last November and is available on mobile platforms and the web; Saver is new and web-only for now, with mobile versions coming soon.) These seemed like nice features -- it would be great to be able to attach and save files from all my iPhone apps, since iOS hides the file system. But they didn't seem like massive platform ambitions. Certainly nothing to justify an entire developers' conference.

But in talking to developers at the show, I got a sense that Dropbox is actually trying to tackle something very difficult -- keeping information in real-time sync across devices is way harder than it looks. More important, as one developer for online gifting startup Sincerely put it, it solves an absolutely necessary problem.

This is exactly how Dropbox got to 175 million users. And not just users -- happy users! In his keynote Houston mentioned that users often say they "love" Dropbox. I thought this was marketing blather, but when I mentioned to my wife last evening that I'd been at a Dropbox event, that was her exact reaction -- "I love Dropbox!" She uses it to coordinate fundraising for my daughter's elementary school PTA, which involves tons of spreadsheets and letters and PDFs. She doesn't have to think about it. She doesn't have to explain how it works to the other people in the PTA. It just works. 

Dropbox makes it look easy, but it is not easy. Just take a look at how poor Apple still can't get contact syncing to work properly between iOS and iCloud. The problem gets even worse when you're using products from different big companies, which have little incentive to make their products work well together. (In fact, my wife tried Gmail and Apps before using Dropbox but hated the way Google always wants to convert Microsoft Office docs to its own format.) 

In other words, Dropbox has taken one very complicated problem that's absolutely necessary to solve, and presented a deceptively simple solution to it. 

That's now what the company is promising to do for developers. If it actually works as promised, it could make developers love Dropbox the way a lot of end users already do.

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