How I Dropped Dropbox

How I Dropped Dropbox

There are so many Dropbox integrations available that the service seems essential, or at least difficult to imagine doing without. Over the years I’ve hooked numerous apps and services into my Dropbox account, which is why I started paying for the professional plan seven years ago. And yet each year, at renewal time, I think a bit more deeply about the question of whether Dropbox is in fact so indispensable. This is the very boring story of how I came to realize that it’s not.

It’s no secret that online storage has become more and more common, but I was still taken aback a bit when I recently took an accounting of all the places where I have access to at least a terabyte or more of it: iCloud Drive, where I also have all of our family photos, and Google Drive, where I have my email and office productivity, are the most prominent examples. But I also have backup storage on my Synology NAS, and “cold storage” that I’ve set up on Amazon S3 Glacier. And those are just the options that I pay for myself; at work I can store files on Microsoft OneDrive and even on an enterprise version of Dropbox.

Clearly, storage is a commodity now. And while Dropbox has worked hard to differentiate itself with new features, at its core, it’s still hard to argue that the service is truly much more than storage. Even the company’s elegantly designed and reasonably popular Paper app hardly feels additive; it’s hard to make a case for innovation when the key value-add is something as basic as word processing.

Then last month my view of Dropbox’s unique value diminished even further when Apple announced that folder sharing would soon be coming to iCloud Drive. This replicates fully the most compelling reason I had to stick with Dropbox: the ability to give other users access to my select folders directly in the macOS Finder. That, combined with Dropbox’s recent announcement that it would be increasing the annual cost of my pro plan by US$20 at renewal time, finally convinced me to cancel my subscription.

Of course, part of the reason I stuck with it for so long was because the prospect of untangling Dropbox from my life had daunted me for years. That’s the genius of services like these; at first you think you’re just buying storage, but little by little it finds its way into everything you use.

The only way to kick a habit though is to start kicking it. I logged into the Dropbox site and then opened the “Connected Apps” section of my settings screen. That displayed a list of over three dozen apps and services that I had hooked into the service over the past decade or so of usage. That’s when I realized that surprisingly few of them actually seemed all that critical anymore, if they ever even were. Many of them I hadn’t used in ages, and most others could easily be replaced by iCloud Drive. A very few would be difficult to use without Dropbox, but I realized that the actual storage they required was effectively de minimis and that they could easily reside on Dropbox’s free tier, if necessary.

There was a standout exception on this list though: 1Password, the absolutely essential password manager, whose password vaults I sync between devices via Dropbox. It’s possible to sync 1Password with iCloud, but neither iCloud nor Dropbox are as robust and secure for this purpose as Agile Bits’ own 1Password membership option. That comes at a cost of course, but a 1Password family plan, which covers up to five users and costs half the price of a Dropbox subscription for just me, struck me as far more economically wise anyway.

Having confirmed that my apps would be largely unaffected, I turned my focus to shifting my stuff off of Dropbox—or deleting it—at scale. I started with my projects folder, the largest single directory I have on the service. It proved surprisingly difficult to shift to iCloud Drive; for several days, Dropbox seemed stalled or out of sync between my devices as it worked overtime to delete hundreds of thousands of individual files. Eventually it sorted itself out, and I then started rooting through all the other directories where I’d stashed photos, screen grabs, stock art, fonts, music, PDFs, video clips and countless other random items over the years, deleting most of them and refiling others on iCloud.

One of the hardest things to figure out was how to handle a shared directory that my wife and I use to store bills and paperwork. iCloud Drive’s folder sharing is still only in beta and won’t officially be ready until this fall, and even then my wife historically has been less aggressive about upgrading than me. As an intermediate plan, I decided to make copies of the files I knew I would need continued access to, then disconnect my account from the directory altogether for the time being (my wife retains access), until we can recreate the share on iCloud Drive. It’ll be inconvenient for us to coordinate these items in the meantime, but not insurmountable.

As with any file system in continual use for nearly a decade, my Dropbox account had accumulated a ton of cruft. All in all, it took me three weeks of persistent pruning, bit by bit, to whittle it down from nearly a terabyte to just seventy-eight megabytes. It was annoying, and not at all the way I wanted to spend even a little bit of my life, but then again I had a very nice feeling of satisfaction when I was able to cancel the pending auto-renewal of my Dropbox account, which was set to happen this coming week.

More to the point, disconnecting from Dropbox was time consuming, but it wasn’t difficult. Which is to say that although the process was high friction it was relatively straightforward, and not at all technically challenging. At the outset I had expected that switching away from Dropbox would break many parts of my workflow; in practice, very little of it has been disturbed at all, even though the iCloud Drive features that are ostensibly allowing me to switch are still in beta. I’m certainly not extolling the virtues of leaving Dropbox if you find it indispensable in your own work—it’s still the best option if you need to share files across non-Apple platforms. But the relative ease with which I was able to leave it illustrates well Steve Jobs’s famous criticism that Dropbox is a feature, not a product. We often mistakenly believe that software features are irreplaceable but they rarely are, especially in categories as well commoditized as storage.

Cardboard box photo by Creativity103 at Flickr.