Dropping the Ball

A quick lesson in how not to communicate with your customers.

I’m surprised to realize I’ve never done a blog post about Dropbox.

Since I work on three different computers (desktop, laptop, and tablet), I need to be sure I have the latest version of all of my files on each. Dropbox makes it mindlessly easy. Install the software on each machine, and once past the initial download, it all Just Works. Make a change on one machine, and it gets copied to the others. No network? No problem. As soon as you’re back on line, all the changes get shared around. And if disaster strikes (this is earthquake–and wildfire–country) Dropbox works as an off-site backup too.

It was great when Dad and I were writing The RagTime Traveler, too. Dropbox lets you share specific folders and files with other users. We shared a working folder, and everything he wrote, I got within seconds and visa-versa. No more emailing files back and forth, making changes and then discovering we’d edited the wrong version.

And, best of all, Dropbox supports Linux. The only one of the big names to do so. (Digression: it still seems odd that there’s no Linux client for Google Drive, despite Google’s use of Linux throughout the company, and early promises that one would be coming “soon”. It’s not like Google never puts money into economically unsupportable projects.)

Granted, the support has been somewhat half-hearted. Many system configurations were officially unsupported. But for the most part, they worked. They still do. But.

Here’s where we come to the “How Not To” part of the discussion.

Apparently, Dropbox has had a change of heart. On Friday, I got a warning message from Dropbox on my desktop machine (the Linux one). “Dropbox will stop syncing in November.” No explanation, no specific date, no web link for further information. Also no similar message on the laptop or tablet.

Naturally, I went online. Nothing on Dropbox’s website. So I sent a message to their Twitter support address*. That’s the one that promises “quick replies”. Four days later, nothing. Not even crickets.

* Twitter’s got to be good for something, right?

So I looked further. Used my awesome Google skills, well-trained by years of digging for odd bits of information to surprise and delight readers. (Ahem. Sorry.) Anyway, it turns out I’m not the only one who got the message. I know, what a surprise, huh? There’s a long thread on Dropbox’s support forum. Long, because of Dropbox’s response to the initial question.

Okay, I need to digress again. If you know what a file system is, you can skip the next couple of paragraphs.

Greatly oversimplified, a file system is the way your operating system lays out your data on a disk. Could be a hard drive, a floppy (if you’ve got a really old computer), thumb drive, whatever. There’s more than just raw data, of course. There are indexes to allow the computer to find the files, and there’s provision for some information about the files. For example, every file system keeps track of when files were created and/or changed. On systems that support multiple users–and yes, that includes Windows–the file system will also track who owns which files.

Every operating system supports multiple file systems. Windows, for example, mostly uses NTFS, but it also supports the older FAT file system and a recent variant, exFAT. Different file systems work best under different conditions–and of course every OS manufacturer wants their own FS to work best with their OS. So file systems proliferate.

End of digression. Let’s move on.

Dropbox’s official response to the user who asked about the warning message was to sacrifice Jay. Jay is a “Community Moderator,” someone who helps keep Dropbox’s support forum on track. Jay was given the delightful job of telling the world that as of November 7, the company is going to disable their own product on non-supported file systems.

On Windows, that means NTFS only. Which is actually the status quo; you haven’t been able to use Dropbox for Windows on anything but NTFS for years. Two file systems, HFS+ and APFS, are supported on Macs. Since those are Apple’s own file systems, and probably 99% of Macs use one or the other, again, it’s no big deal.

But then we come to Linux, where exactly one file system is supported: Ext4. And that’s a big problem for Linux users. Because Linux users are long-accustomed to tweaking their systems to maximize performance. And so there are many, many supported file systems on Linux. At least two of which are arguably more popular than Dropbox’s choice.

Even if a Linux user is running Ext4, if they’ve turned on the file system’s encryption functionality, Dropbox won’t sync it after November 6.

Having delivered this bombshell–that Dropbox is not only throwing Linux users off their system, but forcing them to decrypt their computers if they want to stay–Jay disappeared.

There has still been no official word from Dropbox about the reason for the change (the technical explanation Jay gave in his message is complete nonsense, leading many to believe it’s a cover for the first step in dropping Linux support entirely). The support site has been quietly updated with the same word Jay gave, complete with the same nonsensical reason.

Now, you may be asking why it matters. After all, Linux users are a small fraction of computer users. Why should Dropbox support them.

And to some extent that’s true. Dropbox doesn’t have to support Linux. But changing the status quo is risky. Linux users are, for the most part, more technically oriented than the average computer user. They’re often the people who keep corporate computers running. And, as the comments on the support thread show, many of them were instrumental in their companies’ decision to go with Dropbox as their cloud storage provider.

By changing from a “use at your own risk” approach to “do it our way or beat it” without an announcement and with no willingness to engage the community, Dropbox has changed all of those promoter-users into ex-customers. Telling those who might otherwise stick it out that they can’t encrypt their computers (and let us not forget that many companies require all laptops to be encrypted) ups the pain.

Losing one Linux user’s ten bucks a month won’t hurt Dropbox. Losing his employer’s two thousand dollars a month (assuming one hundred corporate users) will hurt, especially when multiplied by a few hundred companies.

One has to wonder about the timing of this action as well. Thursday, the day the Dropbox software started warning users about the shutdown, is also the day Chief Operating Officer Dennis Woodside announced he was stepping down, effective September 4.

That announcement cost Dropbox ten percent of its stock value.

An interesting coincidence, no?

Has Dropbox learned anything from the furor they’re facing in the press? Say, to engage their customers and get buy in before making significant changes?

Don’t make me laugh.

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