Dropbox’s Quest To Make Every App Work Offline

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*Screeeeech* That’s your favorite app slamming on the brakes the second it loses its data connection. It seems ridiculous that apps can’t function offline, until you realize that cloud data sync isn’t some simple technology any developer can afford to build. That’s where Dropbox comes in. “Users shouldn’t even need to know if they’re connected or not” CEO Drew Houston tells me.

It’s a timely statement, considering Houston and I are speaking in the middle of the white-carpeted pavilion of Dropbox’s first developer conference DBX…where the wi-fi is down.

As much as we’d like to believe the whole world is blanketed in sweet, sweet Internet, it’s not. In the developing world, the information superhighway is often just a muddy path. Mobiles in the mid-western United States cling to the few bars of reception they can get. Even LTE havens like San Francisco have their service holes. And if you get too many people in one spot, say a park or a music festival, everyone’s data speed slows to a crawl or craps out entirely.

In these cases, you can’t tweet. Can’t load your own city’s map. Can’t view the Facebook news feed, upload a photo to Instagram, or search your old Gmails. And that’s just the big guys. Barring a few notable exceptions with limited offline capabilities like Evernote and Google Translate, many apps simply fail when the data stops flowing.

Time won’t necessarily solve this problem. Years from now we may conquer the Earth with connection, but it won’t always be fast. “Offline vs online doesn’t have to be binary” says Dropbox VP of Engineering Aditya Agarwal. “There will always be a spectrum. Offline today will be slow-line tomorrow.” That just doesn’t jive with Dropbox, whose mission is to give its 175 million users access to their data and files anywhere, but also anytime.

Everconnected

If you were expecting some flashy surprises at DBX, you’d be disappointed. And that’s a good thing. Instead of diverging from its core purpose to expand into new areas, Dropbox kept it tight. Founded in 2006, the problem of weaving all our data together is big enough for Dropbox to stay laser-focused. This isn’t Facebook, with its “move fast and break things” culture of trying a ton of products and seeing what sticks. It’s only got 300 or so employees that it refuses to spread thin. Just because it’s not a giant yet doesn’t mean all the decisions come from the top, though. Houston explains, “If you tell people what to do all the time, they think ‘OK, it’s not my job to use my brain.'”

Drew HoustonThat management style and concentration led to today’s most exciting announcement. Sure, there were Dropbox integrations in its acquisition Mailbox and Yahoo’s Mail for Android app. Houston strutted across the stage explaining how apps can use the new Drop-Ins functionality to easily pull in files from a user’s Dropbox. But the real-game changer is how Dropbox plans to power data syncing and offline functionality for any app that wants help. It’s a new product called the Datastore API, though really it’s the reapplication of what Dropbox has done for files in the online world, but for in-app data in our occasionally disconnected universe.

With the Datastore API, developers can upload their users’ structured data to Dropbox so it’s safe and can be synced back to any device. That way if you add a to-do list item, beat a game level, or edit a photo on your iPhone, you can pick up right where you left off on your iPad or desktop. It sounds simple and obvious, but the backend work it requires is a huge undertaking, especially for small startups. Agarwal tells me that sure, Amazon’s Kindle apps remember what page of your book you’re on across devices, but  “they’re also a great, really big company with a lot of engineers.” Dropbox lets any developer, no matter how small, piggyback on its years of syncing technology for free.

Where I see the magic is when you’re offline and go to make a change or add something in one of your Datastore API-equipped apps. Dropbox keeps track of the changes locally, then syncs them when you get a strong enough connection. Dropbox could make sure the emails or messages you write offline get delivered, keep you from redundantly toiling away at Candy Crush levels, or save your airplane musings. It could be especially helpful while traveling when you want to use apps without running up data roaming charges. You can use them offline, then they’ll sync their data through Dropbox when you get to a wifi connection.

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Dropbox will need to move fast to push Datastore API adoption to the 100,000 apps already on its platform and beyond. Google, Apple, and Amazon have all been ramping up the backend services they offer developers. They each control their own mobile operating system they can integrate data sync APIs into. Dropbox doesn’t. But that might be what helps the startup win. It’s platform agnostic. No horse in the race. It’s building for all users, and therefore all developers. It doesn’t earn money on those developers, which is a tad worrisome, but the company hopes its partners will spread the idea that data storage is a modern necessity.

Subtle Strength

“No app is going to get a Editor’s Choice Award because it works offline, but it’s these little details that add up to a great experience” Houston tells me. But in the future, offline functionality anchored on Dropbox could become a big draw. Every email app could work like Outlook offline, you could comment on or @reply your last pull of news feed posts or tweets, and you’d never have to worry about your latest photo or video creation disappearing in the ether because of a failed upload.

“Once you have that experience with one or two apps you wonder why it doesn’t work like that in everything” Houston concludes. “Every app is going to be designed this way in the future and we wanted to get started on that now.”