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New! Improved!

How Dropbox plans to change your cloud for the better

Last week, Dropbox held its first-ever developer conference in San Francisco, California, where Dropbox CEO Drew Houston announced several new initiatives aimed at improving the usability of cloud storage/sync.

First things first. If you aren't familiar with Dropbox, it's a cloud storage solution built around ease of use and sharing capabilities. You can read our feature about cloud services here to get more detailed information, but the gist is this: Dropbox gives you 2GB of storage in the "cloud." You can download their application for Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, or Windows Phone, which creates a folder on your device where you can deposit files for uploading to Dropbox's servers. This makes it easy to share your data with your friends, family, or coworkers because it's already hosted on the Internet. It also means your data is backed up in case something happens to your physical storage.

Once your content is uploaded, there's no waiting for an email to send, and no size limits (other than the size of your Dropbox) to deal with -- you can (relatively) effortlessly share anything you've uploaded with anyone else. You can earn an additional 18GB of free storage by inviting people you know to join the service. Otherwise, paid plans start at $99/year for 100GB, and $200/year for 200GB.

Now, onto the good stuff. Dropbox's first initiative is what they call the Datastore API, which "provides a new model for storing and syncing data beyond files. When you use Datastores, you don't have to build a complicated sync engine from scratch - you can add the power of Dropbox into your app in a snap!" Essentially, this allows application developers to create databases that store their application's information inside of Dropbox's syncing platform. For example, you sign up with a new app on your phone which requires you to create a profile with your name, address, and a few more data points. By using Datastores, that information could be stored and synced in Dropbox so that when you logged in from your laptop or desktop, there would be nothing to fill out. Similarly, if any of the data changes while you're using the desktop app, the next time your open the app on your phone, the data has already been synced and updated.

It gives app developers more freedom to create other features in their applications because they no longer have to worry about having a server to host it all. Another example would be game saves. If Angry Birds used Datastores, all of your game saves could be offloaded to Dropbox, allowing you to pick up where you left off on another device. In essence, "Datastores are the easiest way to keep your app's structured data, like settings, bookmarks, and game save state, in sync across multiple devices and operating systems. Datastores are like simple embedded databases, except changes are automatically synced and if a user makes changes to the same datastore on multiple devices, conflicts are automatically resolved."

Their second initiative is a set of Dropbox features called Drop-ins. There are two of these, and the first is called Dropbox Saver. This Drop-in allows users to save files from web apps (and soon Android/iOS apps) directly to their Dropboxes. Much like how you see a traditional Save As or Download button in a program, web application, or mobile application, when Dropbox Saver is implemented, a new button will appear called "Save to Dropbox". So, instead of saving that song or photo -- or any file, really -- to your hard drive, Dropbox Saver lets you save it right to your Dropbox so that it's available on all of your devices instantly.

"The Saver is the easiest way to add files to your users' Dropboxes. With two clicks, a user can download files of any size into their Dropbox, making those files available on all their computers and devices as soon as the download completes." Saver is already being implemented on several sites, including Shutterstock, the popular stock photography website. Instead of saving images straight to your hard drive, Shutterstock allows you to save them to your Dropbox using the Saver Drop-in. This means that you can put images straight into a shared folder, for instance, so that they are immediately available to coworkers or partners.

Essentially the opposite of Dropbox Saver is Dropbox Chooser. This Drop-in, though initially launched last November, is now available for iOS and Android applications. The Chooser allows applications to request files from a Dropbox. For example, the iOS application Mailbox can connect to your Dropbox account, which then allows you to attach files to email using Dropbox. This eliminates a whole host of annoying issues with email attachments like file size restrictions and sending speed.

This is particularly useful if you use Dropbox to automatically upload photos taken with your smartphone camera. For example, Simple, a bank startup, recently implemented Dropbox Chooser into their app so that users can attach photos or documents to individual transactions. This is just one use case among many others.

Dropbox's goal is to connect the web to the cloud, and remove the need for physical hard drives. While this is still a ways off, implementation of these features definitely makes it more of a reality. If you're able to save anything to, and upload anything from, Dropbox inside the applications you normally use, then the only limit becomes storage space. The key to this whole initiative is Dropbox's sync tech, which basically makes all of this possible. They have figured out how to let multiple users edit the same file at the same time without conflicts. This tech has paved the way for some of these other features, and for the first time, makes the cloud a viable place from which everyone can share and work.

The only barrier to these cool features is implementation. Dropbox is obviously working hard to secure partners and get these new features implemented in a wide range of applications, but it will take time before you see a "Save to Dropbox" button on your favorite site. They're definitely committed, though, so while it might be later rather than sooner, expect these features to come to fruition in the programs and web apps you use most.