Dropbox Launches ‘Smart Workspaces’

Drew Houston repositions the company and wants to ‘quiet the noise’

Stowe Boyd
Sep 25, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

A few months ago Dropbox released what it called the ‘new dropbox’, a release that hinted at new big ideas and raised more questions than it answered. At the time, it felt like Dropbox had dropped the first shoe, and we were waiting for the last shoe to drop. I wrote at that time,

Dropbox has released an early version of a ‘New Dropbox’, one that will reposition Dropbox from a file sync-and-share appliance — a product space that is rapidly being commoditized — and instead shifting toward a new center of gravity, as a content-centric work management utility. They build on the design of the virtual file system from the old Dropbox, and extend it with ideas derived from Dropbox Paper, in the form of a formatted text description area at the head of each folder, with text styling, lists, and — most critically — tasks. Files can be commented on in the new Dropbox folders (currently only through the new desktop app), and @mentioning of other users is also supported (currently only through the new desktop app).

Below, you see a screenshot of what Dropbox is now calling a ‘smart workspace’, different from the earlier Dropbox folder principally because of the description area at the top of the folder, above the files.

At the time, I also wondered that the ‘new dropbox’ did not build on Dropbox Paper, the company’s docs-in-the-cloud offering. Paper is an example of what I call content-centric work management, allowing users to manage information and tasks in the same sharable documents. Paper’s adoption has been hampered — I believe — by living in a separate nebula of the Dropbox galaxy, far far away from the mainstream Dropbox file system:

I don’t understand why Dropbox won’t support the creation and management of Dropbox Paper documents in the new Dropbox file system. Paper has features — such as tables — that are not currently implemented in the new description section, and, to an avid user, I would like to use have both folders with descriptions (including tasks) and Paper documents (with tasks, etc.), all sharing the same task model and database.

At today’s Work In Progress conference, Drew Houston and Dropbox have dropped the other shoe.

First of all, Dropbox Paper documents are now first-class file types in Dropbox workspaces. They can be created in place, just like Google and Microsoft productivity docs. Likewise, they now synchronize to your desktop like all other files, just like images, videos, and productivity docs, and they can be opened from your desktop, too. So Dropbox answered the biggest question implicitly raised when they first hinted at the future of Dropbox, a few months back.

But now they are explicitly raising the ante, and repositioning the company around a new vision (taken from their press release):

Dropbox is the world’s first smart workspace that helps people and teams focus on the work that matters.

In this vision, file sync-and-share is just table stakes.

In this, the first of a series of posts on what Dropbox is rolling out I will focus on just one thread in the blitz of announcements and roadmaps the company is sharing. It’s based on a quote from Houston:

“We’re building the smart workspace because we need technology that helps us quiet the noise, rather than contributing to it,” said Drew Houston, CEO, Dropbox. “This starts with the launch of Dropbox Spaces, which brings together your most important content and tools into one organized place, so you can stay focused and in sync with your team.”

Quiet The Noise

Houston says the smart workspace is intended to quiet the noise that has become a commonplace problem in our current way of work. Without explicitly stating it, Houston is alluding to the working model for today’s workplaces, which is dominated by work chat. The model of communication, coordination, and cooperation that work chat engenders is, well, noisy.

I have called this the era of overchat. People are spending too much time living in the chat stream. Team-centric work chat tools can dominate communication and lead to a work of overwork, kind of like overly talkative domineering team members in meetings. In aggregate, work chat can become the equivalent of the most mouthy team mate ever.

Rather than focusing on getting work done, or actively coworking on projects, chat leads to too much being said over and over, because context is lost when the stream of chat moves along.

There is also the social crowding problem with chat rooms, where ‘tourists’ gain access to more chat rooms to stay up to speed on the status of work in teams they aren’t a member of. They ask questions, offer suggestions: it slows everything down. Jeff Bezos warned against excess cross-team communications for that reason.

First Takeaways

Here are three takeaways, just to get started:

  1. Houston is repositioning the company as the provider of ‘first smart workspace that helps people and teams focus on the work that matters.’ We’ll have to watch as the details emerge in the weeks and months to come.
  2. File systems are now a foundational element of shared workspaces, not a separate layer in a siloed approach to getting work done.
  3. Context-centric work is driven by a long list of needs, but one that is easy to understand is this: the way most people work is too noisy. First, let’s quiet the noise.

I included an examination of an earlier generation of Dropbox Paper in State of Work Technology: Volume 3 Content-Centric Work Technology.

The leading global voice on emerging technologies

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

GigaOm

GigaOm is the leading global voice on emerging technologies. We help transform enterprises with insight and guidance in an AI-enriched, data-driven world.

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

GigaOm

GigaOm is the leading global voice on emerging technologies. We help transform enterprises with insight and guidance in an AI-enriched, data-driven world.

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