Dropbox Paper and Smart Sync: Fighting a war on two fronts with two heads

Google on one side, Microsoft on the other, and Dropbox in the middle.

If you want the bottom line, and no deets, jump to Bottom Line, at the bottom. Otherwise, read on.

Dropbox Paper released from Beta

Yesterday, Dropbox brought its Paper app out of beta. A great many commentators have recycled materials from the blog posts and press releases, but don’t appear to have actually used the new features.

I used the app in an earlier period, during 2016, and the basic features remain, including glaring problems (see Two-Headed Monster, below).

I’m fascinated with the slant of ‘work processing’: document-centric work management, where tasks are integrated in docs, but their metadata — due dates and assignment, for example — are managed in a way that is similar to task management tools.

I wrote about using Dropbox Paper as a ‘work processor’ in this post —

— but concluded in the final analysis that it lacked the necessary task management capabilities to make it workable in that way. As a composite document system, it has promise, but it has real issues, too (see Two-Headed Monster, below).

There are hints in various articles that Paper now support so-called Projects, which may solve some of the issues I raised. In particular, if I am being tasked with work to do in dozens of Paper docs, I need to see an aggregation of that somewhere: a task list, for me and my teammates. Aggregating by projects is a sensible model, too, which is what I suppose Projects is meant to do.

I quickly discovered that the free team capability that I had access too does not lead to Paper Projects capabilities, and so I signed up for the 30 day free trial of so-called standard Dropbox for Business (which requires a minimum of 5 licenses, mind you). But as far as I can tell Projects is not available in that tier or hasn’t rolled out yet.

In fact, I can’t find anything written about Projects except in the most recent articles. Try searching for it. Nothing on their blog, in their support, or on the description of the various tiers of Business accounts:

Image for post
Image for post
What you get, and maybe some other things?

I will keep the account up for a few weeks, and hope that Projects will be rolling out at some point.

Two-Headed Monster

The show-stopper for Paper is that there is hardly any integration between the world of Paper and the world of all your other Dropbox files. They’re implemented as two silos. While you can embed links to Dropbox files in Paper docs, you can’t have Paper docs in Dropbox folders. It’s a two-headed monster.

There’s something else at work, strategically. Dropbox has gone to great lengths to create a deep and rich integration with Microsoft Office documents, allowing users in the non-paper silo to easily create Office docs, edit them, and use Dropbox commenting capabilities across these shared documents. In effect, they are providing a lightweight alternative to Microsoft Office, and particularly, to OneDrive. So some large community of Dropbox Business users are deeply committed to the care and feeding of Office docs, and they aren’t likely to be that interested in Paper.

These are also the users that are interested in Smart Sync, which is a newly released file sync app, that basically acts as a file folder on your Mac, but only downloads the files represented on demand. This doesn’t involve Paper docs, which only exist in that other head, and only in the cloud. But this would be interesting for people who want to do things the old-fashioned way: editing a spreadsheet on their mac using Excel, or Apple Numbers.

Image for post
Image for post
Smart Sync

However, Dropbox is also trying to compete with Google, and Paper is really targeted to the subset of Google Drive users who create Google docs in the cloud, and manage them in the native Google docs format, not as Office documents.

As a result, the Dropbox approach appears two-headed, but may be a realistic way of fighting a war on two fronts, Google on one side, and Microsoft on the other.

The question is: can they really win against these two giants at the same time? And of course, there are a variety of alternative approaches popping up to compete with one head or the other.

For example, I have stumbled upon Dossier, which provides similar capabilities to Paper, but is closely integrated with Slack. Note that Paper doesn’t make any accommodations for Slack, as far as I can see. So, for those who are basing their work process around Slack (or other work chat tools) Paper doesn’t really offer anything, since there’s no integration.

Bottom Line

Paper coming out of beta is not really noteworthy, except maybe for Projects, which unfortunately are not described anywhere, and not accessible to me in a 30 day free trial of Dropbox for Business. And the perpetuation of Paper as a second head on the Dropbox torso — basically a different, and unintegrated world — should have been cleared up before the beta ended, I think.

Smart Sync will be of interest to people who want to edit their documents in the old fashioned way, on the hard drive of your laptop, tablet, or other device. For some use cases — like video editing software — that model continues to make sense, but editing a Word doc or a spreadsheet? Why not do it in the cloud?

I’ll report back if I find out more.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store