Cloud collaboration is changing the way we work

cloud

Introduction

Cloud collaboration has made its way into homes, classrooms, and businesses all over the world.  In the past year alone, all of the major players on the internet have made moves toward cloud storage, and it’s growth has been astounding.  The standards have been raised by the competition, and apprehensions about the safety and security of web-stored files may soon be a thing of the past.  Additionally, this easy-access approach has changed the way people work together.  And although the process is far from perfect in its current state, cloud collaboration may very well become second nature for file storing and sharing.  This post will focus heavily on personal cloud storage and collaboration for use in homes, schools, and small office groups.

History of Collaboration

Snail mail

Prior to to the prevalence of technological communication, most collaboration took place in person.  But when it wasn’t possible to meet, people sent mail back and forth through messengers and later, postal services.  This type of collaboration was used by Eleanor Roosevelt in forming the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through 1947 and 1948.  As she and a colleague, John Peters Humphrey, began to put together a draft, she communicated by mail her intentions and eventually, parts of her drafts, so that delegates from China, Russia, England, and the like could read it and improve it.  The problem here was that in order to make changes, the recipient would need to either rewrite the entire document, or mark where they thought changes should be made and then the sender would need to rewrite it on her end.  This process could take months, and in the case of Humphrey’s document, took over a year and a half to finalize.

Email

Today’s most frequent form of written communication was invented in 1971, but took until 1985 to become commonplace throughout academia, government offices, and military personnel.#  Email revolutionized written communication, and eventually, digital collaboration as well.  With the invention of attachments in 1992#, people could now send documents to each other, edit them, and send back their edited document – no longer did they need to rewrite every word.  Additionally, this form of collaboration could be done several times within a day’s work.  However, email has its constraints, too.  The first is file size limits.  Up until this year, Gmail’s limit was 10 megabytes, which is more than enough for a small text document, but larger PDFs, pictures, and videos would need to be broken up in order to be transmitted.  Also, while email improved time constraints considerably, it still was restricted to one-to-one collaboration, and although, a sender could distribute his email to several others, they would all need to work on their parts individually, and someone would need to bring them all together.

Writely and Google Docs

That’s where Writely came in.  In 2005, a startup called Upstartle invented Writely, a web-based text editor and word processor, which was similar to Microsoft Word but in an online format.  The following year, Google purchased Upstartle, which only had four employees, and combined Writely with their Google Spreadsheets application to create Google Docs.#  Writely and Google Docs combined the features of word processing with the collaborative power of email, and even took it one step further.  An owner’s documents lived on the internet, and he or she could send a link to that document to any other collaborator.  The collaborators could then open the document and edit it.  This way, multiple people could edit a single document and know that they were always editing the most recent version.  Eventually, Google Docs added real-time editing features, commenting, and a chat window, as well as a multitude of other features that are still in use today.  The emergence of Google Docs finally symbolized the potential for the most efficient method for collaborating on a single document.

Major Players: DropBox

Background:

The first prominent file storage service entered the scene in 2007 after being conceived by an MIT student frustrated with the existing set of cloud websites and applications.  By 2009, it had won TechCrunch’s award for Best Internet Application, and followed with multiple awards across the net the following year.

Dropbox began as a desktop application, in which multiple users could access the files from any computer with an internet connection.  More so, if you were working on a paper in your dorm room, you could save the file in your Dropbox folder, and then access it on a library computer or from your home.  You didn’t need to transfer it to a flash drive or email it to yourself every time you made a change.  This was the first major milestone in the personal cloud computing world, that would soon make waves in the technology industry.

This infographic gives an insightful look at everything Dropbox has accomplished since its start.#


Growth:

By 2008, the service, maintained by only nine employees, had 200,000 users.  They had raised 7.2 million dollars in start-up investment money, and it definitely paid off.  By the end of 2011, Dropbox had grown to 70 employees supporting 25 million users, and was projected to make 240 million dollars in revenue.  In September of that year, the company made investment deals with seven large companies, including Goldman Sachs and Accel.  And in November of 2012, Dropbox reported that it had acquired its 100 millionth user, quadrupling its user base in less than a year.

Source: http://cloudofdata.com/2012/11/dropbox-google-drive-apple-icloud-microsoft-skydrive-maybe-theyre-not-apples-after-all/

Through its model, Dropbox broke the ice and paved the way for its competitors.  Dropbox proved that there was potential for growth in the cloud storage market, and that cloud storage could be a serious industry in itself.

Major Players: Competition and Comparisons

Since the rise of Dropbox in 2008, many competitors have come and gone.  Dropbox had fairly steady and solid control of the market until April of 2012, when Microsoft and Google both made legitimate moves and released their own forms of collaboration applications.

Skydrive:

Microsoft already had a web-based file system it called Skydrive, but in April it released a full-fledged desktop application for Windows and OS X, pitting it against that of Dropbox.  Additionally, Skydrive’s iPhone application had been released just four months prior, giving Microsoft all of the tools to take on Dropbox.  And its large user base makes it a viable threat.  In February of 2011, Skydrive had only 17 million users, but 9 months later, after its overhaul, it boasted over 200 million.#  These numbers may not be the best indicator of success, however, as Skydrive has been pushed through many of Microsoft’s services, including xBox Live and Outlook, and might not represent people truly using it for storage and collaboration purposes only.  For example, if I have an xBox Live account with music stored there, I might move my music over to Skydrive, but this does not represent a consumer searching for cloud storage and choosing Skydrive over Dropbox.  Eventually, when Microsoft’s user base is exhausted, Skydrive’s future will truly be tested.

Google Drive:

Google, on the other hand, had been concentrating their efforts in the area of collaboration rather than storage.  Its own Google Docs had made leaps and bounds in the previous years, adding the ability to create Presentations and PDF files, as well as a mobile application that allowed cell phone users to edit documents in real-time with other collaborators on computers.  The users could even see each other’s cursors as they typed.

But like Microsoft, Google too released their own version of a desktop application, and sent a message that they would compete directly with Skydrive and Dropbox.  In doing so, Google inherently had the upper hand because of its broad internet reach, its multitude of services and its already-large user base.

Head to Head:

As of today, there are no definitive numbers that give any insight to who is leading the cloud collaboration war – it has only been six months.  Only time will tell who ends up on top. Until then, all we can analyze are features.  The main differences seem to lie in the compatibility of the services with other services.  For example, Google Drive integrates smoothly with Google+ and Gmail, while Skydrive plays nice with Microsoft Office products.  This may be a downside for DropBox, as it doesn’t have other tools to work with.  But DropBox was the first player in the game, and it does have the foundation, which may prove to be the deciding factor in the long run.  Several websites released in-depth comparisons of the three services, but I found the following table summed it up best:


Source: http://geekynote.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/battle-of-the-cloud-google-drive-vs-skydrive-vs-dropbox/

Alternative Forms

Wikis

Wikis have emerged as a useful tool for collaboration.  They are an open-source approach to gathering information, and can be used on a small scale by just a few people or on a large scale by millions.  Popularized by Wikipedia, wikis contain pages that can be edited by members of a group.

Wikis are generally not meant to be a one-time project, where everyone works for a few days on completing them to arrive at a final product.  Instead, they provide a slow growing, work-in-progress platform whose pages become populated with useful information over time.  For example, a wiki page used internally by DropBox employees and developers might outline all of the functions of DropBox, how to edit the back end of the code, and how to work on new versions.  When new versions of the software are created by those employees, they would add to the wiki and create new pages describing the new additions and how to use them.

On the other end, when the software is released, a DropBox user sitting on their home computer might have a tough time using the new version. Once they figure out how to use it, they might edit DropBox’s Wikipedia page to reflect the new changes and offer other people advice on how to use them.

Wikipedia currently has over 4 million articles, mostly written by the average reader and contributor, and is growing at a steady linear rate:

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Statistics

Other Wikis used for certain niches have been popping up all over the web as well. For example, a simple Google search for “Harry Potter Wiki” provides numerous links to wikis with extensive information about the Harry Potter book and movie series.  They have pages for every character, building, magic spell, etc. in the collection.

Wikis provide a means for people to share the information they know at any time with others who might find it useful at some point in the future.

Future

All signs point to cloud collaboration and storage becoming a standard for homes and businesses in the future. Of course, people are always going to want their data in their hands, to make sure it doesn’t disappear on the cloud, but a practical idea is use your personal hard drive to periodically back up your data on the cloud, which is a reversal of what most cloud-users do today.  This way, your most up-to-date information is on the cloud, and can be accessed by any device anywhere.

The two major problems inhibiting the cloud today are safety and security.

All of the major cloud companies have lost user data from time to time, and that is a constant fear of cloud skeptics – that all of their data will be gone forever if they trust these companies.  But over time, the cloud will become more and more reliable, and this fear will slowly go away, especially if people begin to back up their cloud data onto a hard drive of their own.

Security, however, may be an issue for a bit longer.  Many people are worried about storing their personal files, like banking numbers, addresses, social security numbers, etc. on the cloud for fear of them being stolen.  But as far as this goes, security is only getting better. Currently, DropBox uses AES-256 encryption, which is the same level of encryption most banks use.  If you trust your bank with your information, you should eventually be able to trust these companies.

A bigger security issue is that people don’t want their personal files being stored on someone company’s computer hundreds of miles away.  That data can be copied and stored somewhere long after the user decides to delete it.  Unfortunately, there is not much that companies can do to guarantee that your files will stay sealed and be accessible only to you.  Not yet, at least. This is an area that needs to be improved in order to solidify the cloud’s footprint in the future.

Response to Feedback

When I made my presentation several weeks ago, I had a decent start to a world of research that I still hadn’t tapped.  Much of my feedback was related to hard numbers, regarding number of users, profits, and growth, so I decided to try to focus on that in at least some of my final project.  Unfortunately, Google Drive and Microsoft Skydrive haven’t reported many of their business statistics because they are both so new.  So I decided to look more into DropBox, which I didn’t mention in my presentation, because I knew there would be data.

The first half of my presentation was initially about Google Drive only, and while informative, it gave no insight to how Google’s approach compared relatively to the rest of the industry.  By introducing and exploring its competitors, DropBox and Skydrive, I allowed my project to dive deeper into their strengths and weaknesses, while also providing a clear picture of the market on a whole and how these companies stack up.

Additionally, I focused half of my presentation on Github, but because of its specific technical use and the feedback pertaining to that, I decided that Drive, DropBox and Skydrive would be more relevant to the future of cloud collaboration, and to focus my research on those companies.  I thought it was important to recognize alternative forms of cloud collaboration, like wikis and git repositories like Github, but they are arguably not at the center of the subject.

Overall, the feedback from the class allowed my straightforward presentation of two companies to grow into a detailed and layered analysis of the whole industry.  I really appreciate all of the insightful comments, and I hope that your questions are better answered throughout this completed project.

 

Sources:

“Drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drafting_of_the_Universal_Declaration_of_Human_Rights

Timeline: A Brief History of Email. Macworld.com, June 19, 2012. http://www.macworld.com/article/1167303/timeline_a_brief_history_of_email.html

Father of the email attachment. Guardian.co.uk, March 26, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/mar/26/ather-of-the-email-attachment

“Google Docs,” Wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Docs

Source: http://activ8social.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/The-Rise-of-

Dropbox-Infographic-e1333727764322.jpg

“Dropbox reaches 100 million users,” theverge.com.  November 13, 2012.  http://www.theverge.com/2012/11/13/3641082/dropbox-100-million-user-milestone

“How fast is Skydrive growing?” Liveside.net, October 27, 2012.  http://www.liveside.net/2012/10/27/how-fast-is-skydrive-growing/

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One thought on “Cloud collaboration is changing the way we work

  1. “On no worries.. its in the cloud… ” While not yet the most common phrase around, it is something, that as your presentation highlights, is definitely coming. Your detailed description of how the industry formed was insightful and made me think about both how much has happened since 2005 and the constant battle theme of David and Goliath in the tech space.

    For me personally I am a fan of dropbox. However, at the same time, I have a gmail and use the assorted suite of google products. Because of this i never really get into dropbox unless I am collaborating directly with another dropbox user or wanting to transfer something directly off my desktop.

    You make a valid point, when you say that people will gain faith in the cloud as long as they are able to maintain their own hard copy. It does not imply that i fully trust the cloud, however it does signal a desire to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the cloud.

    Security will always be a problem as long as the internet and collaboration tools are around.

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