Over the last two weeks I've been playing a bit with the three main cloud storage services and their respective Windows applications, that let you map a folder to remote storage. I've read countless blog posts about the license agreements and I really think that despite the different wording they are almost identical; I've read debates about the price comparison (but they are difficult to compare, because they do different things). What I'm not seen covered is the cabability of the Windows client applications and the quality of their integration with Windows Explorer. If you want to use them to keep a local copy of your main PC files on a safe location, and move others to a public folder to share them with the world, you don't want to use the browser and upload or download file. You want this to happen seamlessly. That's why Google released a Windows application for GDrive and Microsoft (after a few years) released one for SkyDrive. DropBox? They had one for quite some time...
Microsoft has had SkyDrive for quite some time and now gave us early users some extra free space... until the change the service name (I notice that changes Windows Live and Azure to something else). After a few years they released a client application in the same week Google released theirs. Don't tell me Microsoft doesn't need competition to put its act together! Anyway, after you install it and connect it to your Microsoft account (or Windows Live ID) you get to pick a folder that's kept in synch with cloud storage. Choose wisely, as you cannot change the folder later on but need to uninstall and re-install. Not good. After the process, you get an icon in the notification area:
Quite scanty. You can open the local folder or open the online view in the browser. The configuration settings are also a bit bare bone: there are two check boxes!
As you look into the selected folder, or one of the subfolders, you see your files with a modified icon, loosely cloning TortoiseSVN, with the file status. That's all as there is no special menu, folder configuration or any other setting. You move files there, they get backed up online. And you can share them with other computers. This is much better than in the past, when there was only the web interface, but not a huge effort.
Google's storage service has been rumored for years, and it was finally released recently. it is integrated with Google Docs (and Google Apps), which already provided file storage at least for those (like myself) with a paid company account. Now you get integration with the Windows file system. Again, when you install GDrive you point it to a folder and it show a nice icon in your notification area, with some more menu items:
There are the two core menu items (view local drive, open in browser) plus a few more direct links 8buy more storage, view items shared with me) and some nice status information (active account, available space). Also the preferences are a bit more complete than Microsoft ones:
For example you can synch only some of the folders under the main GDrive folder and, well, you can buy more storage (the message is not so subtle...). GDrive specific features is that is merges in its files and folders the local files on your PC and the documents on Google Apps and the "virtual folders" you arranged your documents into. On the local file system you get placeholders for the online documents, which can make it much faster to open them. But it you copy a local file (like a Word or PowerPoint file) you can still open it online, if you want. I use Google Apps a lot and find this feature quite handy. This is a view of a folder:
In this case there is no visual clue about the file status, which is a bit disappointing.
DropBox is the service that first integrated remote or cloud document storage with Windows. I think they still use Amazon's S3 behind the scenes, which explains why they are considerably more expensive. I do have quite a lot of free storage from they referral program... if you want to contribute some more signup to DropBox from this link.
From the installation, you can notice that DropBox has more flexibility. It's notification icon keep telling you of the files is it downloading or uploading, and using it for shared content among multiple computers is really very nice. The icon and its menu look like this:
Notice the "all files up to date" which is the more detailed than the other services, and the recently changed files, and the pause... but if you open the preferences dialog you can see that it is not even comparable to Google and Microsoft apps in terms of flexibility and customization. Yes, it might be geared towards power user, more than the average user, but I certainly appreciate the difference:
This is only one of the 5 configuration pages. For example, you have the option to move the entire DropBox repository to a different location on your file system. And other advanced features.
But the real difference between DropBox and the other services becomes visible as you start moving to Windows Explorer itself. DropBox enabled files and folders have extra menu items that let you perform specific actions, like making a folder public, retrieving the URL of a public resource, getting past versions of the files, and perform many more actions without having to open the web browser. As Microsoft's solution (and well before it), the files and folders are marked with status icons. Here are the two instances of the folder and file menus, but their actual content depends on the sych and accessibility status:
Conclusion: DropBox clearly wins on Windows Integration
Online services must work nicely and easily give you power without having to resort to a browser, be geared towards synchronizing different computers and devices. For now on Windows DropBox is a clear winner (and I'm not saying this because of the affiliation, as I'm also a Microsoft and Google Partner). Too bad the price difference is significant. Cannot Google or Microsoft or Amazon go buy DropBox (make Joel happy) and deliver us the best of the two worlds? Or hire a good Windows programmer and make Windows Explorer integration a little more rich for their online storage services? Microsoft should have the knowledge to do this and I was expecting a bit more from them.
PS. Or maybe one of us could write a Delphi application for integrating with Explorer, and sell it to them. Microsoft already bought a Delphi application for a few millions (Skype), you never know. ;-)