Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dropbox! (yeah, again)

Monday night, I was extolling the virtues of the Dropbox tool to my Writer's Roundtable. They asked me to share the details with them, so last night I sent out an email to the group, and got a great question in return. I thought it would make a fine article to share them both.

Hello Writers,

Per requests from last evening’s meeting, I’m posting this info regarding the Dropbox software that I use and absolutely love. Dropbox is a FREE utility that installs on any computer (well, maybe not Jeff’s), as well as on most mobile devices like Smartphones and (I believe) iPads. It leverages “Cloud” technology, which is a fancy way of saying that it stores data on servers that are off in a datacenter somewhere and you never physically see them, but they’re accessible from anywhere through the Internet. Dropbox has two key features that make it super-useful to me and many other writers, and I suspect it might be great for some of you as well. They are:

1.    Accessibility – by storing your key files in your computer’s Dropbox folder and connecting to the Internet, those files become accessible from anywhere. Access them from a Library or a friend’s computer via any web browser. Access them from a smartphone or other mobile device. Access them from any  other computer you own, and always be sure that you’re getting the current version.
a.    As a sub-feature of item 1, the files are always synchronized as long as you’re connected to the internet, so you never have to worry that you have different versions of your files on different computers. Your Dropbox folders are always up to date!
2.    Remote, secure storage – by putting your files up “in the cloud,” you ensure that they’re safe, even if something awful happens to your computer (right Eric?!). And the files are transmitted and stored using military-grade encryption, so you don’t have to worry about security (assuming you use a good password and keep it secret, keep it safe).
a.    Again, as a sub-feature of item 2, Dropbox maintains a log of all the files you’ve added, changed, or deleted, and using that log you can undelete files, even if they’re completely erased from your Dropbox folder and all the computers it’s installed on. I’ve never needed to use this feature, but it’s awesome to know that it’s there if I ever mistakenly delete or overwrite an irreplaceable document.

There are also a handful of other features – including the ability to “share” a particular folder with specific individuals so they can access it from anywhere, but the ones above are the biggies.

Personally, I have ALL of my novel, short story, research, and notes files stored on my Dropbox, ensuring that I can access them from any of my computers and making certain that they’re safely backed up in the event of a disaster of less than biblical proportions. I keep lots of other documents there, too. It’s become my one-stop repository for anything I consider important.

So why am I sharing this info with all of you? Well, certainly because I was asked to after I raved about it at the meeting last night. Also because I think it’s a terrific tool and I’d feel better knowing that the files you all work so hard to create are safely stored away where you can get to them, but where harm cannot. And, in the interests of full disclosure, I get a bonus amount of free space in my Dropbox every time somebody I refer to the service downloads and installs Dropbox using my link. But fear not – it’s totally fair, because each of those people ALSO get free space by using my link. So it’s win-win!

Anyway, here’s the link:

You don’t have to use my link, but you’ll get 256 MB of free space if you do, so you probably should. Once you’ve downloaded and installed the software, note that you can also get bonus free space by completing the “tour” on the website and various other simple tasks. Be sure to check it out at after you’ve created your account and installed the software.

Any questions about Dropbox, don’t hesitate to ask. I wouldn’t recommend it so highly if I didn’t believe it was an absolutely outstanding tool that I think  you’ll all love as much as I do.


One of my group's member responded with this question:

Hi Mike,

I appreciate the information you have passed on and I am very interested in some type of 'cloud' filing/saving. I do have a concern though - I listened to a fairly lengthy discussion on this type of data saving on NPR last week and they basically said that when you save all of your stuff on a free database there are risks involved. When downloading free software, the company providing that service usually has no contract or liability when it comes to protecting your stuff. Whereas, if you pay for a service - there is a contractual relationship established, therefore more of an incentive to protect.

I really know very little about this except what I heard on that program and some subsequent Google searches after, but is the military-grade encrypted safety the same as brought to us by WikiLeaks? (Okay, too dramatic, but you get my drift.) I'm just wondering how you are convinced of the safety of anything that is a free service?

Further thoughts and knowledge on this subject welcome....
Here's my reply:

“Military grade” encryption refers to how data is deliberately scrambled in such a way that somebody trying to catch it as it flits around the internet or somebody trying to hack it from the computer where it’s stored cannot unscramble it. Well, technically they could, but they’d need the world’s most powerful computer running for about a hundred years to do it, so it’s considered unbreakable. The standard is 128-bit, and it’s the same stuff banks use for online banking. It’s generally considered completely secure.

Nothing was “decrypted” as far as Wikileaks is concerned. Wikileaks is just a storehouse – think of it as a public repository where anybody who wants to can take information that’s supposed to be private and toss it out for the world to see. They don’t hack into private data – it’s provided by people who legitimately have access to it. In the most infamous Wikileaks case, a soldier with top-secret-level clearance simply used his access to Defense Department computer systems to copy the files he wanted onto a CD that was labeled “Lady Gaga” and then walk out of the building with it.

None of which has anything at all to do with Dropbox. They could as easily have said “Banking-grade encryption” because it’s the same thing.

As to the point made on NPR – in a properly-developed “Cloud-based” system, even the people running the “cloud” shouldn’t be able to access your data. Dropbox has a pretty good reputation on the web, so I’m comfortable that nobody there is sifting through my files (or is even able to if they wanted to). Now, the other question might be, “What if Dropbox suddenly goes out of business tomorrow. Do I lose all of my files?” Luckily, the answer is “no,” because in addition to being stored on Dropbox’s servers, all of your files are also stored locally on your computer.

In my opinion, the risk that my files would get lost because my computer suffers catastrophic hardware failure is MUCH higher than the risk that Dropbox is going to lose my data. And the value of having my data not only protected off-site, but also available and synchronized no matter which of my computing devices I’m using, more than outweighs any theoretical (and at this point entirely unsubstantiated) risks.

And bear in mind, Dropbox is only Free at its most basic level. They offer a relatively modest amount of space for nothing. But if you want to back up your entire iTunes or MP3 collection, it probably won’t fit within the free service. If you want to back up large photography files or videos, that probably won’t fit. If you need off-site synchronization and storage to run a business that uses large files or a lot of data, it’s not going to fit in the amount of space you get for free. Dropbox’s bread and butter is in their PAID services, and they’re not going to risk putting themselves out of business by screwing their free users. Their free service is the loss-leader designed to generate positive buzz, interest, and word-of-mouth so they can sell their premium service to the people who need it. So yes, I trust them as much as I would if I were one of their paying customers, because it’s still in their interest to treat me well, and counter to their interests to treat me poorly.

Great question!
So there you have it - Dropbox is awesome. And if you're going to get it anyway (and I can't think of really anyone who wouldn't get some value out of it), be sure to use my link and enjoy the extra space you'll get.

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