If you are as old as I am, you remember what a 3.5" floppy is. You even remember 5.25" floppies or dare I say an 8" floppy disk. Don’t forget about magnetic tapes, zip disks and memory cards. All of these items have been used and then discarded in our quest to improve our ability to maintain and share our digital files.
Even with the new age of portable media, and despite access to USB flash drives, email and shared drives, it is still difficult to keep all our business and personal files organized, readily accessible in a mobile lifestyle and safe from loss and corruption while at the same time easily sharing them with other friends, coworkers and associates. Luckily, the end of our pursuit for the perfect document organizing and collaborating system may be found in Dropbox.
Dropbox - Never Heard Of It
Dropbox is an internet based service that allows you to automatically synchronize files between the storage drives of Windows, Mac, Linux and even mobile devices. It is by far the best way I have ever found to keep my files organized and to work on different projects with various individuals. It blends some of the best features of Windows Explorer, Facebook, FTP, syncing programs and Google Doc into one, and best of all, it's free. The basic account is free and comes with 2GB of storage space. Reasonably priced personal and business storage space upgrades are available.
Keeping Your Files Organized
What makes Dropbox unique? File-sharing sites like Google Docs have been around for a while and they are a great way to make your documents accessible from any web enabled computer. However, because of their remote and web-based nature, you have to upload and download files to work on them (unless working with the native formats).
Dropbox expands upon this idea by creating copies of all your master files from the cloud directly onto any computers or devices you choose. Then it works in the background to keep all of these different copies synchronized and current. Whether you are at home, at work or on the road with a laptop, all of your personal or business related files are accessible.
Also, since there are local copies on your computer, you can directly interact with them using the familiar file explorer (no browser, no download) even when you have no internet connection. And what happens if you are away from one of your linked computers or devices? You can access all of your files through any web browser using Dropbox’s easy-to-navigate web interface - assuming you can remember your password.
With Dropbox, there is no more emailing files to yourself or losing your USB flash drive. Simply relax and have confidence that you can always get to your files anywhere you go.
Remember how I mentioned Dropbox syncs continuously and stores your master files on the cloud? That makes it a great file backup system. No more loosing 3 days of work if your hard drive crashes. And should the Dropbox main servers and backup servers somehow mysteriously fail, you still have all those copies on your linked devices.
Dropbox even keeps you safe from the biggest threat of all, yourself. It allows you to retrieve any prior version of a document and even allows you to undelete that document you absolutely knew you would never need again. So forget scheduling backups, hassling with external drives or paying for expensive online backup services, let Dropbox take care of it for you.
Collaborating with Others
Here is where Dropbox really shines. Much like friending someone on Facebook, Dropbox allows you to share any of your folders with anyone you like. It then works diligently syncing not only your changes, but also changes made by others. It doesn’t care if you are on the same network, doesn’t require a VPN connection and maintains the easy-to-use file explorer interface. You even get handy notifications and change logs so you know what others are working on. And the backup and revision features are still available too.
Here is an example of how I actually use it to help manage development projects. I start by putting together a project outline using a gantt chart. I typically use Vertex42’s Gantt Chart Template to get started. This is an excellent tool for managing small and medium size projects and creating gantt charts in Excel.
Once the chart is ready, I create a folder in Dropbox and share the folder with the team - like Susan in Baltimore and Ray in Australia. I then dump the project schedule into the folder and send an email with instructions and rules for using the project plan.
Then as the project proceeds, each of the team members is responsible for updating the project plan with the status of their portion of the project. Periodically I review the chart to figure out where additional help is needed, which tasks are stalled and which tasks may need to be reassigned – all without emailing files, uploading documents or worrying about who has the most recent version. Everyone on the team can directly edit the file and all changes are shared instantly.
Slowly, other files are added by the team containing the results of their labor. Whether they are CAD files, spreadsheets, photos or videos, Dropbox can handle it all. If Ray accidently deletes a file or the team doesn’t agree with changes Susan made, we simply retrieve the prior version from the Dropbox website, and move on.
This makes Dropbox perfect for collaborating with any number of people anywhere in the world, while still keeping your files safe* and easy to interact with.
*Consult an IT professional before using Dropbox on a secured network.
End of the Search?
While it is likely that time will ultimately produce something better than Dropbox for organizing and collaborating on documents, I personally am no longer searching for something better. My USB flash drive is officially retired, sitting right next to my old stack of floppy disks. With an easy to use interface, automatic backup, the ability to share with anyone and extreme mobility, it has greatly helped me to manage all of my digital media across a number of projects, locations and devices. Now if only I could find something like it to help me manage my desk.
We would love to hear about any other tips, ideas, sites or tools for helping to organize files and collaborate with others.
Note: Vertex42® and the author are not affiliated with or compensated by Dropbox.com.