My current tech crush: Dropbox

Anyone who regularly accesses multiple computers knows how hard it is to keep track of files.  That’s why Zotero now offers online syncing & backup, why MobileMe offers Back To My Mac, why flash drives are so popular, and why, in general, cloud computing has become such a buzzword.

I do ok managing my research files, but managing teaching and committee-related files has been an increasing problem, especially after I moved to electronic-only paper submission a couple of years ago.  I’d save student papers to a folder on one computer and start grading.  I probably could’ve put the folder on a flash drive, but my experience with flash drives is spotty–usually I fail to have it at the right place.  Typically what I do is zip the folder when I’m done on a particular computer and then e-mail the file to myself.  During a semester, I’ll accumulate scores of folders and zips with helpful names like Paper 1 grading, Paper 1 grading 1, Paper 1 grading 2, etc.  And sometimes, as I start grading, I’ll realize I need to tweak a rubric.  Great–which folder, on which computer, is it in?

Madness.  But I know I’m not the only one who does the e-mail-it-to-myself thing.  My wife does it. My students do it.  I’ve seen colleagues do it, here and at other institutions.  I’m happy to tell you that there’s a better way: Dropbox.

Dropbox does something amazing: It sets up a folder on your machine, a folder apparently like any other, except with magical powers: Whatever you put into it is automatically backed up into the cloud, and is accessible by you from any computer with a web browser, immediately and without any fussing.  If you make changes to the file, the Dropbox servers maintain previous versions.  If you install the Dropbox software on, for instance, your work and your home computers, then the Dropbox folder on both computers is always synced.  With no worries, no settings, no configuring–easy.  So, for example, to grade a recent set of papers, I set up my folder in a dropbox, and–there it was.  At home and at work.  Always the same.  I accessed it from another computer through the web interface–no sweat.  I accessed it from my iPhone.  Dropbox works on multiple platforms, and it makes syncing and backup impossibly easy. (Watch Jason Snell explain it here.)

What’s also great about it is that you can specify sharing on particular folders.  For example, at the risk of name-dropping a bit, I was invited to join Dropbox by this guy so that he could share some information with me about an upcoming visit to our campus.  So, we have a folder that we can both access, although we can’t see the rest of our respective folders.  You can also make a public folder, so that you can share pictures and such with anyone.

2GB are free, and then you can pay for more.

There are a lot of web services I like (delicious, 30boxes, pbwiki, twitter, gmail, flickr), but Dropbox is the most intuitive and gamechanging one. You should try it.

*Local readers will say, “but you could just use your M:\ drive,” which is true, but it’s irritating to use with a Mac, and you can’t do–as far as I know–the nifty sharing-with-other-people trick.  What I value in services is how painfree they make my life.

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