SXSW: Dropping In on Dropbox’s Drew Houston

For a service that’s beloved by such a lot of people, cloud-storage and syncing service Dropbox is surprisingly controversial. On one hand, venture capitalist (and Dropbox investor) Bill Gurley talks in regards to the company someday being worth $40 billion . At the other, tech writer Farhad Manjoo, who loves the service, nevertheless thinks it is not that gigantic a deal : Online storage is a commodity, he says, and Dropbox doesn’t have the access to operating-system underpinnings that it really must do the job right.

Then there’s an opinionated observer who Manjoo cites and agrees with: Steve Jobs, who liked Dropbox enough that he offered to purchase it for greater than $100 million in 2009 – but maintained that it was a feature , not a service.

I use and prefer Dropbox and will be pleased to work out it thrive forever, since it is a scrappy, innovative startup that’s competing against the industry’s giants: Apple, Google and Microsoft. And here on the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas I got an opportunity to speak at a coffee shop with Drew Houston, the company’s 29-year-old founder and CEO.

At the instant, Dropbox’s big news is a revamped version of its browser-based version . Houston told me that one in all of the goals of the facelift was to make the service feel slightly less like an old-fashioned file manager. Instead it specializes in letting you figure with specific forms of stuff – similar to photos, which now get a distinct viewer in their own. That philosophy points the service in an analogous direction to that of Apple’s iCloud, that’s less about folders of files than that is about photos, videos and diverse varieties of documents, and the belongings you can do with them.

I asked Houston about critics like Manjoo, who say that the features that Dropbox provides are on their option to being commoditized into irrelevance. He said that seamless, reliable file management across multiple devices and platforms remains an enormous technical challenge, evven for corporations with formidable resources.

“We’re not the tenth company to do that, or the hundredth,” he noted, accurately. “If it were easy, a few of these other smart people would have built it.”

Cloud storage, Houston argues, is like se’s. The truth that “anyone could make a text box return links to pages” doesn’t suggest that any company can tackle Google.

With both Google and Dropbox, Houston says, “the magic is inside the engineering.”

He also told me that Apple’s iCloud and Google’s rumored storage service won’t render Dropbox obsolete, since Apple will talk about iOS and Google will specialise in Android, leaving other platforms as “second-class citizens.” (Dropbox, against this, is offered through its browser service plus clients for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android and BlackBerry.)

At the instant, greater than 50 million people use Houston’s service. “Every couple of days, one billion files are stored on Dropbox,” he told me. “Wedding photos, tax returns, people’s most significant stuff.” Users get only 2GB of space free of charge – a comparatively parsimonious amount that competitors beat by factors of as much as 25X – but Houston argues that the company’s paying customers are plunking down money because Dropbox offers peace of mind.

“What people love isn’t free space,” he said. “It’s that they might literally take their MacBook Air and throw it inside the river and never lose anything…That’s been the promise for years. We brought it around the finish line.”

I know that Dropbox is considered indispensable by a high percentage of the hardcore nerds and nearly-nerdy people I run across. But I asked Houston if the service is for technically-sophisticated people or for everybody. He said that it’s already a breakout hit. At a contemporary conference, he met one person that had learned about Dropbox from his 80-year-old dad – and another who’d discovered it when his 8-year-old daughter recommended it.

“We’re like a Milton Bradley game,” he laughed – appropriate for every age.