Upthere: A cloud storage revolution or doomed from the beginning?

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Agent-X Comics

Here’s a fact: cloud storage is broken and confusing. Most people I know (professors, students, coworkers, business owners, relators, educators, family) do not use a cloud storage service. The majority of them use computers that have never been backed up, a behavior formed by the trust we place in companies like Apple. A few of them use Time Machine, but never plug in their computers to hard drives or simply refuse to spend money on a $300 router. Others use services like Google Drive or Dropbox to share files as an alternative to using small flash drives, or they use Google Docs because they are tired of Microsoft Word crashing and losing all their work. Perhaps I should have started this piece with the line, “storage is broken and confusing.”

As someone that follows technology and has done so since the early 2000's, I’ve watched the rise of cloud storage and cloud backup. It all started with Dropbox, a service that was created as a hack to file systems so that files could be shared across computers like they are on local high school and college networks. I was a huge Dropbox junkie. Every file I had went into the Dropbox folder. I created symlinks (funny little file aliases) to folders integrated into my Mac’s system like the Desktop and the Documents folder using an app called MacDropAny. This mean anything I dropped onto the Desktop was immediately synchronized to folders on Dropbox. When I played Minecraft, I actually had a symlink to the system folder for Minecraft so that any changes I made where immediately synchronized to the cloud and all other computers logged onto my Dropbox. Definately a hack, but it worked flawlessly.

Earlier this year I moved to Google Drive. What a mess this service is. I switched to save money but have found it is so much buggier than Dropbox, it’s almost unusable. For example, I have to restart the Mac app a few times a day so that the sync logo and preferences pane don’t disappear. Every time I load the app on the web, my iPhone, my iPad, or another computer that has never seen my Google login credentials, I’m greeted by files I’ve never seen before (or I can’t remember) and files that I deleted or unshared years ago. It takes a reload or force restart of the app to get rid of them. This does not help me to trust the service.

Now though, there is a new service from some ex-Apple employees, Upthere, and it has challenged my perception of what cloud service could be. I joined the service as a beta tester sometime in the winter, and I mistook the service as being just another Dropbox clone. However, when a few days ago the app came out for everyone, I took another look and realized there was something fundamentally different about Upthere. Instead of trying to hack an old file system like the Finder, Upthere was inventing something from the ground up — a whole new way of thinking about file systems.

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The company’s logo, a folded piece of paper representing a mountain.

Upthere is a standalone app that does not integrate into the Finder, unlike Dropbox or Google Drive. When you open the app you are presented with a modern, flat app. This design is one of the reasons why Upthere stands apart from the rest: because it doesn’t try to hack something that has been around forever, it is incredibly simple and straightforward. The app is broken into two sections: the navigation bar, and whatever content you are viewing. This is that time-trusted layout pioneered with the Next system so long ago: where you come from is on the left and where you want to go is on the right. The navigation bar is broken into Flow (something like Dropbox’s “Recents” tab or the Finder’s “All My Files” tab), Photos, Music and Documents. Upthere hopes you’ll keep your entire digital life here. When viewing a file, if you want more information just click details. This is much simpler than right clicking a file and going down to “Get Info”. Most of you who have read this far won’t find this difficult, but trust me, the average user has NO idea where this information is. The app also has its own integrated share sheet, which is an obvious necessity with any modern cloud storage service (why doesn’t iCloud have this build in). In addition to all this, the search bar is front and center. Upthere understands that search is the way most people interact with their files these days.

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There’s that dropdown menu I love so much

The part of the app that is my absolute favorite can be found in the little dropdown menu on the far right. Click that and you get the real power of the app. All the stuff you might need is right there, like adding it to a Loop (that’s basically a folder, but more flexible), delete an item, make a copy etc… Then there is the open button. This button lets you open the file in its default app or open inside of another app. The idea is you keep your documents within Upthere, edit them in the powerful apps on your computer, then close your work-in-progress and have it automatically saved back in Upthere. No files, no saving, no worries.

This is what I love about Upthere. Not only is it an entirely new way of thinking about our files, separate than the Finder or file systems of old, but it respects your files by making them easily editable, safely stored off of your machine, and beautifully organized. Files are files, without having to worry about what app they are created in or what their extension is, and apps are apps, the place where you edit your files. When you choose to open a file, you are presented with a list of apps that can open it. This is how I want it. There is no worry about disk space, organization or anything like that; it’s the one place for it all.

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An unpopulated documents folder

Now there are a few drawbacks to this amazing new service. First of all, it isn’t all as simple as it should be or as I make it out to be. For example, when I opened a PDF in Preview, made some edits and attempted to save it back to Upthere, Preview said the file was uneditable and asked me to save a duplicate in the Finder. This breaks the thing I love so much about the service. In addition, creating new files is still linked to apps, not Upthere. If Upthere is where everything lives and apps are what allow me to edit files, then Upthere needs to be able to pull in anything new I create in apps. For example, creating a new document in Microsoft word means that file is stored on the Desktop or in some folder hidden away. Then I have to drag and drop it into Upthere. This makes the decision a conscious decision instead of a passive one and immediately the beauty of the service is broken. I’m sure there is a techincal fix to this.

The direct competition to Upthere is probably not Dropbox, as you might think. Dropbox is a service to move files from one computer to another, keep them synchronized and stored in the cloud. This is what they started with and try as they might, they can’t get away from it. Upthere’s competition is the very thing it is challenging, the Finder and the filesystem. Therefore, its direct competitor is more likely iCloud in macOS Sierra and iOS 10.

iCloud Drive was cooked up by Steve Jobs, who believed that we needed to forget about files and focus only on apps. It was simply a way of synchronizing files in the background for your apps. This idea was mostly a failure and is actually the exact opposite of why I like Upthere. Upthere is for files, apps are for editing files in Upthere. With old iCloud, apps hold files and apps and files go hand in hand. This wasn’t very flexible and felt limited compared to Upthere. I hardly ever used iCloud Drive because when I think of a certain file, I don’t think about the app it was created in, I think about what is in the file.

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Modern day iCloud with a few remnants from the Steve Jobs era. Apps have their own folders. I never use these.

The Tim Cook Apple has (mostly) realized this misstep and corrected for it in iOS 10 and macOS Sierra. In macOS Sierra, your Desktop and Documents folders are automatically synchronized to iCloud Drive, no questions asked. When your Mac runs out of space, it’ll delete files from your drive but keep their shells in place so that if you double click on one, it’ll download from the cloud and open, just like Upthere (Dropbox is working on something like this too but who knows when it’ll be available). This is going to be huge. Come September, suddenly millions of people will have their files backed up and subsequently will all run out of iCloud storage space (hurray). Most people won’t know their files are being backed up until they run out of space! On top of this, Apple announced APFS, a new type of file system for the future of cloud storage and mobile. It’s going to be a big deal.

So where does Upthere stand? iCloud is about to become the default standard for files. Out of all the students, professors, employees and business owners I know who don’t use cloud storage or backup, most of them keep their files on their Desktops or their Documents folder. Those will suddenly become cloud files and will give them seemingly infinite storage space on their computers. While iCloud isn’t as elegant of a solution as Upthere is, it is built into every piece of Apple hardware and closely integrated into iOS and macOS operating systems. Not to mention that many of Upthere’s ideas are now iCloud ideas; Upthere is more difficult than iCloud.

Perhaps the nail in the coffin, most people won’t use 1/2 of the app, the sections dedicated to Music and Photos. Most people won’t keep music in Upthere because of Apple Music and Spotify. They won’t keep their photos in Upthere either because they use Apple Photos and Google Photos, apps that have much more powerful search features.

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Upthere’s music tab.

I was listening to ReplyAll recently, a podcast by Gimlet Media, and they told a story about a picture service that suddenly ground to a halt, millions of photos disappearing for months. Now users are beginning to get their files back, but what a fright. How can we trust cloud companies like this? If Upthere wants to succeed, it has to prove beyond a doubt that they will not shudder, a level of trust that is usually only granted after many years in the business and millions of users (I have complete faith in Dropbox although perhaps even that is unadvisable). That is going to be very difficult as a startup late to the game. Not even $77 million out of beta gives you that much security.

I love Upthere and I love the bravery of the founders going up against such a tumultuous industry. They are looking at cloud storage as it should be not as it is now. Simple, straightfoward and trustworthy. I want them to win this game, but right now I cannot see myself putting all my files in this app. If anything I’ll just use Dropbox again or iCloud Drive in the fall.

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