Dropbox: Sweating the details
August 2013 (perspective of a postdoc)
Back in college, I fell in love with a piece of software called Unison, which automatically synchronizes files across multiple computers. After getting indoctrinated into the Unison lifestyle by my grad student mentor Derek Rayside, I couldn't imagine ever living without all of my files backed up and synchronized across my Mac Mini dorm computer, Windows XP ThinkPad laptop, and Debian Linux office computer. Exactly eight years ago (to the day!), I wrote an article called Unison File Synchronizer: Liberation through Data Replication, which became one of the most widely-cited Unison evangelism and how-to guides.
Even though I touted the benefits of Unison to whoever would listen, I knew that it wasn't ready for public consumption. The major dealbreaker is that it's nearly impossible for regular computer users to install and configure Unison. I managed to set it up for my mother to synchronize between her two Windows computers via a removable hard drive (see Setting up Unison for your mom, dad, or other loved ones), but the 16-step setup process was insanely complicated.
I longed for a product that would bring the power of Unison to a mass audience, and that's why I was incredibly excited when Dropbox launched in 2008. A few years ago, I stopped using Unison and switched completely over to Dropbox. Needless to say, I'm a big fan.
Sweating the details
One of the lamest and laziest criticisms of any product is that it isn't original. “Meh, it's been done before ...” Dropbox certainly wasn't the first commercial attempt to synchronize files across multiple computers, but it's succeeding because it's an incredibly well-polished and well-executed product. (Google also wasn't the first commercial search engine.) For many types of products, being better can more than compensate for not being first.
To me, Dropbox epitomizes the importance of sweating the details to turn a simple idea into an effective product. The Dropbox software delivers on a super-simple promise that even a five-year-old can understand: If you put your files into a magic folder, then they will appear in that same magic folder on all of your other computers and mobile devices.
Back when Dropbox was just getting off the ground in 2008–2009, friends would often ask me, “Well, their idea seems so simple. What prevents Microsoft, Google, Apple, or Amazon from assembling a team of programmers to create a similar product and wipe out Dropbox before they gain critical mass?”
My answer was that employees at a big company probably wouldn't be nearly as willing as the Dropbox founders (and early engineers) to sweat the details – spending hours upon hours making sure that every facet of the product works just right. Although the idea behind file synchronization is simple, implementing this idea well takes a tremendous amount of effort and careful consideration of unusual programming scenarios (called “edge cases”). Without sweating the details, it's impossible to produce a polished product that works reliably for millions of users. (As one example, check out the attention to detail in the Dropbox download page.)
Let's say that the CEO of some hypothetical software company BigCo assembled a team of their top programmers – comparable in skill to the two programmers who founded Dropbox – and assigned them to implement a Dropbox-like product. Why would I bet on the Dropbox founders instead of the BigCo team?
High levels of these four conditions – motivation, pace, risk, and upside – are often necessary to produce great creative works in many fields beyond consumer software products. Some examples that come to mind include research, art, writing, and even nation building. Think about how the rebel founders of the fledgling United States of America must have felt going up against the mighty British empire. They certainly had amazing motivation, rabid pace, tremendous risk, and world-changing upside.