Dropbox cloud syncing service exits beta stage

Cloud sync service Dropbox has announced the final release of its client software. Dropbox 1.0 “Rainbow Shell” comes with performance increases, courtesy of a reduction in resources used by the program, as well as hundreds of bug fixes. However, the biggest new feature is Selective Sync, which allows users to control which files are downloaded to client computers.

Dropbox was one of the first cloud services to break through to the mainstream. Earlier this year it boasted 4,000,000 users.

Dropbox works by creating a folder on the user’s hard disk, the contents of which are automatically and invisibly synced online whether files are saved to the folder or updated.

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The benefit of this approach is that other computers can also sync to that account, making it easy to share files among multiple machines regardless of their physical location. Additionally, Dropbox is a pretty effective backup solution and it keeps histories of each file, making it possible to revert to an earlier version.

As the service crosses the line between consumer and small business usage, it’s easy to see how Dropbox proves useful for remote workers who can use it to keep track of the central or branch office files. An intelligent versioning system means that data isn’t lost should two or more people simultaneously edit a file.

The new Selective Sync feature is designed for computers with limited storage, such as netbooks or Windows-equipped slates. It works on a per-folder basis, but a notable omission is that it isn’t possible to specify individual files. Therefore, users will have to be clever with folder creation if they intend to store large files they don’t want to sync everywhere.

Somewhat annoyingly, it’s up to each client to specify which folders they’d like to sync to a particular computer, usually done during setup–although Selective Sync can also be accessed later on via the Preferences menu. It isn’t possible for a folder creator to specify that it shouldn’t be synced on other machines. Ultimately the Dropbox developers have gone for a simple approach, but it reduces the flexibility some users might need.

However, Mac users will be pleased that resource forks are now handled correctly, making full syncing possible. Macs handle files differently from most other operating systems, saving a small portion of file metadata in a hidden file and the bulk of the data in a larger visible file. Because of issues syncing with other operating systems, most other sync and backup programs simply ignore the resource fork, which can cause problems for users of applications such as Quicken and Quark Xpress.
Windows, Mac, and Linux clients all receive the Selective Sync treatment. Because of cell phone limitations such as patchy connectivity, clients for Apple iPhone and Google Android already work on the basis of selective synchronization, whereby users individually choose which files to download from the Dropbox folder.

Dropbox faces competition from an assortment of other providers, not least of which is Microsoft’s Windows Live Mesh service. Although not supported on as many platforms as Dropbox (only Mac and Windows clients are available), Live Mesh offers 5GB of free storage compared to Dropbox’s 2GB. However, it isn’t as intuitive or fuss-free as Dropbox.

Dropbox’s strength as a cloud offering is that data is mirrored on the users’ hard disks alongside the cloud. This eradicates the traditional concern of adopting cloud services, which is one of reliability. If Google Docs becomes inaccessible, for any reason, then any user relying on it will be unable to work.

However, with a file stored in a Dropbox folder, a local copy of the file will always be present, and the file will be synced again as soon as possible once the service returns to normal, should an outage occur.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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