I have a problem. Despite my love of web applications, I still use a lot of traditional local apps. With these apps come an ever expanding proliferation of files. Since these applications are local, they generate data that resides on a local storage device--and they implicitly expect the latency and throughput of a local storage device. In short, the do not play well with the cloud. Therein lies my problem.
I'm a multiple computer user. On my desk at the office I have a Mac Pro with several large displays attached to it. It's a great arrangement. I keep an assortment of communication apps, content creation apps, web browsers, calendars spread across multiple virtual machines open at all times. It's a sweet setup. The Mac Pro is fast enough to run everything I want to run at once, and the displays have enough real estate that I don't have to think about window management or arrangement. Of course all that power comes at a price: it's not portable at all.
So, I have a MacBook Air as well. The MacBook Air is the opposite of my desktop configuration in that is is completely oriented towards portability. I have an SSD in mine, so the emphasis is on rapid wake-from-sleep and not storage space. It does have a multi-core CPU, but it's still not suited to the massive multi-tasking that the Mac Pro is. I use it for fewer, more specific tasks when I'm on the go.
Additionally, I always have other computers in various states of assembly I use for testing new products or gaming. Although this assemblage of multiple machines means I have a lot of flexibility, it also means I spend a lot of time thinking about where a given file needs to be.
There are several existing methods to cope with this problem.
- Use a server. A local network file server is the most traditional approach. It makes accessing files from multiple computers on a LAN quite easy and fast, but its usefulness fades quickly as soon as you try to access a server from a device that is not on the LAN. Also, some apps on most platforms can have difficulty treating network volumes as peers of local storage.
- Use portable media. A portable hard drive or flash drive is what I'm talking about. If you keep all your working documents on a portable volume, accessing them is as simple as attaching them to whatever computer you happen to be using at the moment. Unfortunately, there is no perfect file system that works seamlessly with all operating systems. Also, it's difficult to maintain a current backup in this situation.
- Email. I've seen people email themselves documents to share them across computers. Aside from the obvious file size limitations of this approach, file versioning and forking quickly becomes an issue that outweighs any possible benefit.
For sometime, I used Apple's iDisk to alleviate the issue. iDisk is part of Apple's MobileMe service, and be default is web based file storage. That makes is subject to the latency and throughput issues that plague any Internet file storage--but a feature called iDisk Sync allows you to create a local copy of your iDisk data that synchronizes with your web-based iDisk. It works with multiple computers, and will copy changed files across all systems. You can also access and download files from me.com. Additionally, Public folders make it easy to share large files with other people. In theory, it's a perfect solution.
In practice the iDisk is slow and prone to version conflicts. Although it's better in Leopard, iDisk sync is still prone to unexplainable hang-ups and can consume an enormous amount of your processor time. As useful as I find other parts of MobileMe, iDisk continues to disappoint me.
Then came Dropbox. Dropbox is very similar to iDisk Sync, but with notable exceptions. First, the base plan is free. Second, the application responsible for synchronization is responsive, lightweight and provides more detailed information about the status of sync operations. It works on Mac OS X, Windows and Linux.
I started using Dropbox for new clients some time ago. About a month into it, I ran into a sync issue--none of the files on my laptop were syncing anymore. I submitted a help request and received a reply from the CTO of the company in a few hours. The suggestions sent to me were transparent, and acknowledged an issue with the current release of the product. I was directed to a stable development build, which resolved the issue and gave syncing a noticeable speed boost to boot. At this point I was using the free version.
Two weeks ago I decided to go "all in." I moved/merged the contents of the Documents folder on all my various systems, making Dropbox the primary repository of all my working data. It's been bliss. I don't have to spend any time thinking about what file is where, or what version it is. Dropbox helpfully keeps multiple revisions of your files and offers very intelligent conflict resolution in the event you edit a document on multiple computers before the most recent version is synced.
Dropbox is everything iDisk is supposed to be. I highly recommend it.