December 18, 2012 Linchpin

I rarely write link posts, but this pace by John Gruber tells an important truth. Dropbox is the “linchpin” in Apple’s iOS workflow.

The scary part though, is that one recurrent theme I see in nearly every single “how I write on the iPad” story is Dropbox. It’s the linchpin in the workflow. Scary, because Dropbox is outside Apple’s control. Scary, because if not for Dropbox, many of these people would not be using their iPads as much as they are. Scary, because Apple’s iCloud falls short of Dropbox.

Dropbox is the preferred way of syncing information between apps and computers on iOS. Apple is frightened because their customers depend on Dropbox, and yet Dropbox is out of Apple’s control. The same was true in 1997 when Apple had no competitive productivity suite of their own1, and many Mac users made their living depending on Microsoft Office. In those days Steve Jobs made a deal with Microsoft to continue supporting Office for Mac. The deal gave Apple the resources they needed to continue to grow, and the time they needed to create iWork, a productivity suite of their own. Now Apple controls a competitive productivity suite on both iOS and Mac OS X, and Apple’s dependency on Microsoft is no more.

In 2009, Steve Jobs tried making a deal with Dropbox, by buying the company and integrating its “feature” into Apple’s future cloud service. Dropbox said no. In return Apple released iCloud, a free service that syncs things differently than Dropbox, but benefits from being more tightly integrated into Mac OS X and iOS.

Releasing a free alternative that has tight integration with its parent platform has worked in the past. Microsoft used this strategy when it was competing with Netscape Navigator, by releasing Internet Explorer for free on the Mac and PC. Apple used this strategy when it released Xcode as part of Mac OS X to compete with alternative development environments like MetroWerks CodeWarrior. In both these situations the strategy of releasing a free alternative worked, but it was the tight integration between that alternative and the parent platform that made them a success.

In the long run iCloud looks like it will prevail over Dropbox. Dropbox may have the advantage of being cross platform, and interesting to geeks2, but normal people don’t care about that. Normal people just want a sync system that works, that they don’t have to setup, and iCloud is getting better everyday. It is already integrated into iOS and Mac OS X. Dropbox is an optional add-on users have to install.

Ben Brooks says it here.

It may be simple to show someone how to use Dropbox, but it’s even easier to show someone how to use iCloud. That’s the killer feature of iCloud: integration.

My question for Apple, is why not make it even easier for users today. People use Dropbox on their iOS devices because they want to share information between Apps. And they use Dropbox on their Macs and PCs because they want to share information between people and computers. Why not make iCloud better at both, and lift the superimposed limitations on sharing information between apps that gives Dropbox a linchpin in iOS? The ball is in your court Apple, and you own the stadium. Now all you have to do is play.

  1. No, AppleWorks didn’t count. 

  2. I am sure Dropbox will stick around, as long as there is a filesystem.