iCloud vs. Dropbox

Dave Winer tweeted something today that got me thinking, so instead of tweeting back and forth with him about it I thought I’d jot my thoughts here. Twitter is pretty horrible for discussions.

In response I pointed out that Dropbox and iCloud are different because Dropbox is a file syncing service and iCloud goes beyond that. If you’re a Mac or iOS developer you can sync portions of files to iCloud along with your application settings. Apple created this as an extension of their ecosystem. As a developer you can have automagic syncing for your applications, if you choose.

Of course I misunderstood Dave’s point. His concern is lock in.

Ah, now I see what he’s referring to. Apple has created a walled garden for applications built on their platform. It’s absolutely true. Another concern of Dave’s is the inability of iCloud to share your files outside of applications.

Once again, Dave is absolutely correct. There is no way to get at your content in iCloud if you’re not using an app that implements iCloud API’s. Oh, there is support for Windows, did you know that?

iCloud for DevelopersHere’s the deal. With iCloud Apple allows you to open your document, stored in iCloud, in your local application, make changes, and those changes can/will be sync’d back to your other devices. Here’s the difference as I see it. Dropbox is an extension of the filesystem on my local computer, iCloud is an extension of my application. Subtle, yes.

I’m having a difficult time getting to the difference because it is so subtle. Imagine if you have a Pages document open on your Mac and on your iOS device. You’re making changes on the Mac and you walk away. Those changes will get pushed to your iOS devices without saving the document. As far as I know you cannot do this with Dropbox. Dropbox will sync an entire file, not portions of a file.

Minor difference, but a difference none the less.

How about this. Dropbox allows me to see all my content via the web and my local filesystem has a copy of the documents. It’s absolutely perfect in that way. What about editing? Can you go to Dropbox.com, log in, and edit a binary Visio drawing? No, you cannot. With iCloud we get this feature via apps. Again, it’s avery subtle difference, but it’s something Apple is very fond of.

I’d imagine once Apple can solve these types of issues we’ll see a more open iCloud, until then, if you’d like a great file syncing solution Dropbox is a better choice than iCloud. If you’re after great integration iCloud may be your best bet, although some applications have done a great job using Dropbox as their syncing solution.

In the end syncing of files across multiple computers is a very difficult problem to solve and Apple is just beginning to address the problem. Dropbox has created a very elegant full file syncing solution. Both are useful.

Oh, one more question. I almost forgot to ask this. If Apples’ iCloud is a lock in, which I will not argue, how is being tied to Dropbox not lock in? I would consider it lock in. To me what’s freed us from lock in are open protocols, like HTML, or RSS. They are part of the fabric of the internet and completely open. I can modify HTML with any application that can read, write, and modify simple text. Definitely no lock in. If Dropbox created an open protocol for syncing of files, that could be implemented by anyone, and their client application, as well as anyone else’s, could communicate with any server that implemented that protocol, I’d say it wasn’t lock in.

A stretch? Maybe. But we are, after all, talking about subtle differences.


  1. iCloud doesn’t work the way you think it does.

    Every document is tied to a single app. It cannot be opened by any other app.

  2. I see what you’re trying to say, but a couple of your statements don’t make sense.

    “What about editing? Can you go to Dropbox.com, log in, and edit a binary Visio drawing? No, you cannot. With iCloud we get this feature via apps.”

    To edit a native Visio drawing I simply open the document on a machine that has Visio on it, i.e. a native app. That’s identical to your iCloud analogy. But, I can do this anywhere. I can sign into Dropbox, download the drawing, edit it, and simply upload it back to Dropbox where it updates itself across all my machines: my Win 8 tablet, my Win 7 work laptop, my 7-inch Samsung tablet, my Samsung Galaxy Nexus Smartphone, and so on. I don’t believe this is possible with iCloud.

    “If Apples’ iCloud is a lock in, which I will not argue, how is being tied to Dropbox not lock in?”

    It’s unclear to me if you really understand the difference here. You’re comment leads me to believe you don’t, but I know that’s not true. I can use Dropbox on any platform. Literally any platform: Linux, Windows, Mac OX, Android, iOS, BlackBerry. And I do. I use it across all my machines and devices. Makes no difference. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe I can do that with iCloud. That’s what makes it a lock-in. And if I choose not to use Dropbox that’s ok too. I can simply move to another cloud-based syncing service, or go back to native desktop.

  3. Huh, sorry about the formatting on my last comment. Apparently my HTML skills need some work.

  4. Dave,

    You are correct. Docs and apps are tied together. I never said they were not.

    My description was focused on how syncing of a document works within the context of an app written for iCloud. In that context, my description is accurate. If the developer writes his app to support iCloud portions of an open file can be sync’d to iCloud and updated on other devices.

  5. Jay,

    I’ve obviously failed to make my point.

    iCloud and Dropbox are VERY different by their nature. Dropbox is a file based solution, iCloud can be integrated with applications as an extension of the document.

    Does that make sense? If I write an iCloud app I don’t have to do anything to download a file to my computer to edit it. It’s there and the changes are saved for me, real time. It’s very subtle, but it is definitely different.

    I’m not bagging on Dropbox, rather, I’m trying to point out the differences between the two technologies. iCloud is tightly integrated, Dropbox is loosely integrated. With iCloud the concept of files goes away, it’s just data, and it’s tightly coupled to the application that created it.

    The idea that Dropbox runs on different platforms doesn’t keep you from lock in. It’s unlikely to happen, but what if Dropbox goes away tomorrow and you’ve written an application that uses its’ API? Where does that leave your app? It will stop operating until you can move to a different syncing API, same is true of iCloud. If Apple dropped iCloud as a supported platform apps will break.

    If iCloud and/or Dropbox API’s and protocols were open standards the user would have a choice to save, or move, their storage to any system that supported those open standards.

    I hope that clears the point up a bit? I’m not bagging on Dropbox. I use the service every day to sync files between my Mac, PC’s, and my iOS devices. It’s flawless.

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