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Dropbox has abandoned its efforts to take over your smartphone. The company announced today that it will shutter two applications, Mailbox and Carousel, in 2016 as a result of its new focus on helping workers collaborate with each other. But it’s hard to see how chasing business workers instead of targeting consumers will change Dropbox’s core problem: That it remains a feature convinced it was a product, then a startup, and then a company that’s raised more than $1 billion.
This isn’t a new argument. People have been saying that Dropbox is a feature instead of a product almost since the company’s file storage service first debuted. There’s no denying the convenience afforded by that service. Being able to trust that files would appear on multiple devices, or on the Web, without having to carry around a bunch of flash drives filled with important documents was huge. But was it a strong enough lodestone for a billion-dollar company to be built on?
In December 2009, Steve Jobs warned Dropbox co-founders Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi that Apple would compete with their service if they declined an acquisition offer. He kept that promise. Apple released iCloud in 2011. Google followed it with Google Drive in 2012. Microsoft introduced several cloud tools. And other companies like SpiderOak, Box, and Amazon introduced tools that either competed indirectly with Dropbox or operated on a much different scale.
Dropbox’s core feature is still as amazing as it was a few years ago. It’s just that no-one can purchase a smartphone, tablet, or laptop without being prompted to use a competitive service. Using an iPhone? Set up iCloud. Created a Google account because of that new Android tablet? Use Google Drive. Replacing that Windows ME-running hunk of plastic with a newer PC? Here, try OneDrive. People can use sync services without ever having to know that Dropbox exists.
The same is true of the services being shuttered. Mailbox was ahead of its time: I remember downloading the app, swiping through my inbox, and wondering how I could ever live with another email app. But then it languished, seemed to be ridden with bugs that were never fixed, and I switched to Gmail’s official app. Other companies improved their email apps all the while, with Apple updating Mail, Gmail tinkering with Inbox, and Microsoft debuting a brand-new Outlook.
Carousel also worked fine. But that was exactly the problem — it was just fine. All the cloud services that Dropbox competes with for file synchronization also offer photo storage services. Products like Google’s new (and popular) Photos service takes it a step further by automatically sorting images and generating montages. Carousel doesn’t do anything that iCloud, Photos, and other services don’t do. So why bother setting up a service that can, and now will, disappear any moment?
Now, Dropbox will focus on its business customers. That begins with services like Paper, a collaborative writing app, and new-yet-boring features like PDF-editing. Are either of those going to be enough to convince businesses to choose Dropbox over competitive services that do the same things? (There are many, like Google Docs and the Microsoft Office suite, for starters.) The company seems to think that focusing on these apps and shuttering its consumer products might help.
No matter what happens, you have to give Dropbox credit. It survived after Jobs warned it about its prospects in 2009. Then, when Farhad Manjoo wrote in 2012 that Jobs was right, Dropbox kept moving along. Now, three years after that, the company is in the same position. Critics keep saying it’s a feature, and Dropbox keeps proving them wrong — or delaying the inevitable. The question is which.