“Project Infinite” to Bring Placeholders to Dropbox

Posted on April 26, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, OneDrive with 0

"Project Infinite" to Bring Placeholders to Dropbox

Good news: Windows users are about to get cloud storage placeholders back. The bad news? This functionality is coming from Dropbox, not Microsoft’s OneDrive.

Which is fine with me: I started using Dropbox daily last year and have found it to be faster, more reliable, and more functional than OneDrive. And now it’s picking up the one superior feature OneDrive used to have: Placeholders.

Naturally, Dropbox isn’t using the term placeholders. Instead, the service says it will “reimagine how people find, access, and collaborate with large amounts of data,” using a “revolutionary new way to access all your files.”

Well. It’s revolutionary only if you’ve never used placeholders.

The issue here is simple: We get gigabytes, terabytes, or even unlimited amounts of cloud storage, depending on the service and/or how much we pay. But our computers contain very finite amounts of storage: a 128 GB SSD seems about the norm these days, while some low-end Windows devices have just 64 GB, or even 32 GB, of onboard storage. This means you can’t fully sync with your cloud storage.

There are solutions to this, of course. The most obvious, and simplest to implement, is called selective sync. This is what OneDrive to turned to when Microsoft turned off placeholders, where you use some kind of tree-based UI to pick and choose which folders to sync from the cloud down to your PC. And you manually configure this on each PC. (Dropbox today supports selective sync too; I imagine that most cloud storage sync clients do.)

Selective sync in OneDrive (Windows 10)

Selective sync in OneDrive (Windows 10)

With “Project Infinite,” however—final name pending, one assumes—Dropbox is seeking more elegant solution. With this technology, Dropbox will display everything in your cloud storage—all of the folders and files—even when you’re not syncing it all to the PC. As you need items—say, by double-clicking a file—they will open normally and will then sync locally going forward. And yes, you can of course manually select folders and files for syncing in advance.

In this folder, one file is synced locally and three are not.

In this folder, one file is synced locally and three are not.

Again. Just like OneDrive placeholders. Which Microsoft does not support anymore. (Yes, it’s still part of a single Windows version, Windows 8.1.)

You can manually select files or folders and sync them to the PC.

You can manually select files or folders and sync them to the PC.

Actually, it’s not just like placeholders. According to Dropbox, the placeholder files it uses take up basically zero space, so you can’t run into an issue where having a lot of stuff in the cloud could cause problems on PCs with low storage. (According to Dropbox, 10 TB of cloud storage translates to just 28 MB worth of local placeholder files before anything is synced.)

You should watch this video for a nice overview.

“We’re addressing a major issue our users have asked us to solve,” Dropbox’s Genevieve Sheehan explains in the Dropbox Business Blog. “The amount of information being created and shared has exploded, but most people still work on devices with limited storage capacity. While teams can store terabyte upon terabyte in the cloud, most individuals’ laptops can only store a small fraction of that. Getting secure access to all the team’s data usually means jumping over to a web browser, a clunky user experience at best.”

Project Infinite is currently in testing and will roll out to all Dropbox users in the future, though the exact schedule is unclear. For users burned by Microsoft’s OneDrive strategy, this is obviously an interesting option, though I’ll point out that Dropbox is of course expensive: You only get 2 GB of storage for free (compared to 5 GB at OneDrive), while 1 year of Dropbox Pro is $9.99 per month and provides 1 TB of space. For unlimited storage, you pay $15 per month for Dropbox Business.

Is it worth the cost? You bet. The usability difference between Dropbox and OneDrive is night and day.


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