Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Why Dropbox truly won't let you sync any folder

They were counting on people like me. The naïve ones, the trusting ones. The ones who would, for the sheer convenience of it all, dump our entire work and personal life into 'the Dropbox' -- and by this, I mean, the special folder they forced me to use, not the cloud in general. Dropbox became my new "C:/", the new base for all things important enough to be saved across my digital world. The Dropbox folder would become that magical place where Windows Explorer automatically opens and the precursor Dropbox would simply fade away. Or so I thought.

It turns out that the difference between "C:/" and "C:/Dropbox/" is more significant than I, and many who I optimistically referred to Dropbox, knew. I first noticed this when my automatic back-ups had to be completely re-organized and re-synchronized. Then I noticed it when my academic reference software didn't find the PDFs in their familiar folders. Still enraptured by the promise of convenience, I labored to change all my links from "C:/" to "C:/Dropbox/". Those were still the young, naïve days... days that happened to involve relatively few files.

Since those days, the number of dependencies on the Dropbox folder have exploded. Now it's not only my academic reference software (thousands of PDFs and other documents), but my password keeper, web-page synchronizer, chat history, eBook base directory, and so forth. Worse, it's all of the web-based Dropbox links and group folders that are ongoing with others. Some of these dependencies are easier to change or update than others, depending on the software and their respective 'Data Liberation' policies. In the case of my academic reference software, it will require manual adjustment or seeking out a friend with knowledge of SQLite to do a batch change. These are the considerations I have when even half-heartedly considering jumping ship from Dropbox.

Perhaps Dropbox has reached that critical threshold where they envision themselves as another "ecosystem", in the sense of Android/Google, Apple, or Windows Phone. Or perhaps, as I argue, this is just another way to keep the barriers to exit just high enough to prevent the casual departure. A blog from January 2015 almost went this far - it was entitled "Dropbox’s most-requested feature: The ability to sync folders outside of Dropbox, probably won’t happen". In this, the author quotes Illya Fushman, head of Dropbox’s business and mobile products:

“We have an opinion on the quality of experience we want people to have and one of those is that we want the experience to be as simple as possible, and as widely useful as possible. So, a lot of times when we get these requests, we try to find ways we can satisfy them; those aren’t always the specific thing the people asked for. They might say ‘I want feature x’ but really what they’re asking for is to be able to do something.

One we have not done, even though we’ve heard it, is the ability to sync any folder outside of Dropbox – I’m not saying never, I am saying we haven’t to date – and the reason is simple: Dropbox really is that one place we want people to have for all their most important stuff, and the simplicity of a folder is something that very many people understand, which makes it very easy for people to start using.”

To decode this, what Mr. Fushman is really saying is that ease of initial use, and the ensuing ecosystem capture, is the business model. Users instinctively understand that they want an exit strategy, which is why they popularly want to keep their original folder structure, while Dropbox sees their eponymous folder as their best measure for customer lock-in. My hypothesis is that Dropbox is so embarrassed about this issue that they plain did away with the so-called Votebox, which allowed users to vote to prioritize changes they wanted in Dropbox. Syncing other folders has been at the top of that list for years and Dropbox has never had a technical response for why they won't implement it (the business response would be, ahem, a PR debacle). But I'll say it here: locking in users is worth pissing people off, because, frankly, there's not much they can do about it.

Sure you could critique me for not preventing this, creating too many dependencies, and otherwise locking myself in. But to levy this critique, you have to compare Dropbox to its competitors - most of which by now have the ability to sync any folder. I don't even blame Dropbox for the lock-in caused by group folders and shared links -- these are unavoidable measures for collaboration and fall under the normal category of phase-out headaches. But sitting for hours on end adjusting my dependent links and not knowing what else might be broken in the future makes a move that much more difficult. I'm not yet abandoning Dropbox, but I'm looking for help.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

How did they manage to get Obama to sell out on Nukes?

On most environmental issues, I'll listen closely and openly to the other side of the story, but there are three issues that I have a difficult time providing slack to.  These are water fluoridation, nuclear power, and the (current) biotechnology industry.  Water fluoridation is a hidden issue protected by layers of pseudo-scientific evidence and tacit public acceptance in the USA and a few other countries; nuclear power is protected by historical subsidies and, lately, green re-branding; and biotechnology, which has potential if carried out responsibly, is sold as a high-tech solution to solving our moral responsibility to the hungry of the world.

Without going into the details, here's a few vignettes to create curiosity in the subjects:

a. If fluoridated water is supposed to help our teeth, why do we fluoridate entire municipal water systems, which is an expensive practice mind you, when 99% of that water will go onto our lawns, down our toilets, showers and sinks, and into our washing machines?

b. Would you learn to live in a world that only contained green granny smith apples? A similar dilemma faces anyone from the tropics who goes looking for bananas in a grocery store in the West.  In an export industry that has been entirely captured by industry, the world of export bananas (thousands are held at the ITC in Belgium, as one example) has been distilled to the Cavendish variety (and formerly, the Gros Michel).  The biotechnology industry (for crops) is much more threatening, as it aims to reduce diversity not just in export-crops (like the Cavendish has done) but for local crops, all with the risk of transferring unwanted genetic material to native crops.

c. It is a testament to the nuclear energy industry's marketing abilities that an uneconomical energy source born of Cold War-era subsidies (which, to an extent, they've largely maintained) is now a contender for flashy new 'sustainable energy' subsidies by Barack Obama.  It doesn't take much investigating to discover that nukes do not bring us any closer to solving the green house gas issue, but they do bring us closer to nuclear weapons proliferation, taxpayer moral hazard, and radioactive pollution.  There may yet be hope for nukes in the way of fusion power, but fission has simply got to go.  The following video is right to the point and addresses some of the "myths"


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Improvising Cambodia, Part 1

Anyone who has been to a poor country, or even a poorer part of a richer country, knows how deeply improvisation is institutionalized.  It's a matter of saving money, managing without the proper supplies/tools, and, as we find out, a matter of culture as well.  In this series on improvisation in Cambodia, I'll be highlighting some stories that are not just "wow"-moments but also illustrate something perhaps a bit deeper.

The first story takes place on Sihanouk Boulevard in Phnom Penh, around 9pm.  For the late evening, traffic is unusually heavy in my homeward direction but eventually I navigate my moped through the tangled mess of bikes, motorbikes, cars, trucks, and pedestrians, and reach the source of the problem. A bus is broken down in the left (passing) lane and the right lane is also partially blocked because they are arranging to use two vehicles to tow the bus onward.  First impression: they're crazy -- it's hard enough towing a small vehicle with another, let alone towing a bus with two cars.  But besides their willingness to engage in such a difficult maneuver, there are a lot of juicy elements to this situation that one can look into.

Firstly, the necessity.  The broken down bus in question belongs to one of the biggest transport companies in Cambodia, so they probably have the resources (either equipment or money) to tow their buses professionally.  But then again, "professionally" is a relative term in Cambodia and powerful tow trucks are much more difficult to come by even around the big city.  Perhaps the most likely answer is that, against all odds, professional tow truck companies have shut their doors for the night and their employees are out drinking, or the company is demanding an extraordinarily high fee for the special evening service.  Along comes an employee who promises he can arrange to do it with two cars and cha-ching, the cheap late-night solution.

Secondly, the logistics.  What kind of tow cars are they using?  One mini-van and one light truck.  What kind of tow cables?  Well, honestly, a mixture of different kinds of rope (fabric-based and plastic) anchored using t-shirts at the tow-points for extra support.  How are the drivers of all three vehicles communicating with each other? Well, an extra helper is sitting on top of each of the towing vehicles where he can see the cables but is still close enough to relay messages to and from the driver.  Now, the point is that the various factors have not actually been calculated in any meaningful way.  Is the combined power of the two cars (given the angle they are towing) enough to move a bus?  Are those ropes enough and can t-shirts really secure the anchor points?  The quick answer, from my observation, is no.  I arrived when lots of engines were being revved to no avail and t-shirts were flying into the air when their capacity was breached.  And judging by the chaos of the yelling, communication was harder than they hoped.  The other question: will they succeed?  Eventually.  At some point enough help (maybe even a third or fourth car) and enough pushers will arrive at the scene to accomplish the goal.  A lot of chaos and yelling will ensue and many lengths of rope will have to be replaced, but the bus will get where it needs to go.  Even in the countryside, when a bus gets stuck in the mud, entrepreneurial villagers emerge from the woodwork and, in sufficient numbers (50-100 people), can manually push or pull a bus from the mud.  (Stories of those nature will come in a subsequent issue of Improving Cambodia).

Thirdly, the context.  The traffic was light enough that, given half a lane, there should have been no backup of vehicles.  But in true Cambodian fashion, rubbernecking passerbys were creating a 'gawkers block' that almost entirely blocked the road, leaving motorists a small and tricky passage over the sidewalk.  In total, I estimate that about two hundred people and their modes of transportation (mopeds, cars, bikes, tuk-tuks) were gathered around the scene, some even watching from the other side of the median strip (thereby creating a bit of traffic in the opposing lane as well).  Like rural people around the world who see little out of the ordinary, Cambodians (even, or perhaps especially?) in the city are, to put it frankly, nosy as hell.  One could use the more neutral term "curious", and I have been encouraged to think in this fashion by others, but I still chalk it up to unabashed nosiness.  For me, the line between curiosity and nosiness is drawn when people take their innocent observations into the non-innocent world of gossip.  In the case of this bus, I'm betting it is more curiosity than nosiness but there will still be many mealside conversations discussing not only the "incident" but creating unjustified judgments about the bus company and their questionable towing practices.

Fourthly, respect.  Cambodians are well aware of the ruckus they will create by initiating an extraordinary display of towing on one of the main boulevards in the capital, even as late as 9pm.  As a result, it is as if they intend to work under conditions that complicate the situation.  Consider the din created by rubberneckers, and the pressure created by having a few hundred eyes on your operation.  And what about the poor motorists (like me) who are in a hurry to get home and find 9pm traffic inconvenient?  All of those issues can be solved by hiring a police officer to clear the area and direct traffic.  It is not bribery - you just throw him another $5 or $10 and he gets off his couch, puts on his uniform, and shows up dutifully to wave a baton around.  Hiring out a police officer to de-pressurize the situation would also be a form of improvisation -- but apparently too much of an improvisation for guys who would dream up towing a bus with passenger vehicles...

(see you next time)