Sync Different: When To Go Direct
I dig sync. I like products that make a user’s data available no matter where he or she is, even if it’s offline. My belief that synchronization is core to the success of information products is one of the big reasons I joined Evernote.
The cleanest way to offer data sync between devices is to have products replicate new data to a data center in the cloud, and then have the data center distribute the data (or deltas) down to users’ devices as needed. Syncing through the cloud is expensive, though: It requires the vendor pay for both storage and bandwidth. It is a major business commitment.
There is another way, without the expensive, recurring overhead: Direct, or peer-to-peer sync. But it’s challenging to get it right. So challenging, in fact, that it may not work to offer it instead of cloud sync.
I should note that at Evernote, we use cloud sync, and not direct sync, because we do a lot of processing on data in the cloud that is then synced down to users’ machines: Search across notebooks, image recognition, OCR, and our API for third-party integrations run on our servers. Cloud sync also means that the user doesn’t have to worry about keeping two machines on and connected at the same time when he or she wants to sync. On mobile devices, which may be connected intermittently, you can’t rely on any two machines being online at the same time. The cloud is always on. It makes for a more consistent experience.
Still, if you’re building a data app and want to offer sync as a feature (and you should), there may be a way you can take advantage of some of the benefits of direct sync. Here are a few companies that have done so, the most recent first:
Cubby is a file sync and store service that puts its data in the cloud, like its competitors do. But the system also gives users the option to sync and shares files directly, device-to-device. Files synced or shared using “DirectSync” don’t count against the user’s storage caps, so users can share even gigantic media files over the system. If the devices are on the same network, data can also transfer at full speed, and not get throttled by a shared or slow Internet connection. LogMeIn sees DirectSync as such a big advantage that it’s actually a premium, paid feature (along with increase cloud storage caps), even though DirectSync files in transit don’t touch LogMeIn infrastructure and don’t incur costs for the company.
CrashPlan is a backup service that offers device-to-device transfer at no cost, on top of the free client apps. If you want to use your mom’s computer as your backup destination, CrashPlan is completely free to you. When you want to use CrashPlan’s cloud servers to store your backup files, then you pay. The client app is the same regardless. In this company’s case, the free device-to-device service, in addition to being very cool, is great marketing material for the paid product.
This is a task manager and to-do list app. The first version of Things offered only device-to-device synchronization of items. Unfortunately, it only synced between devices when both were running the app and on the same local network. (Other direct sync products use cloud services for signaling and coordination, even if the data itself transits the Internet.) This kind of sync required too much attention from the user. The current versions of the app now sync to the cloud.
In the old days, before cloud storage companies existed, a little product called FolderShare provided computer-to-computer file sync. For geeks who could remain aware that their computers wouldn’t sync unless more than one was on at a time, it was a great product. Microsoft bought FolderShare publisher ByteTaxi in 2005 and over the years has reduced the presence of PC-to-PC sync capabilities of its online storage products. In the most recent version, SkyDrive, the direct sync feature has been removed entirely. Microsoft’s Mike Torres said, earlier this year, “We won’t be offering a way to sync between PCs without using the cloud as we’ve found that it adds complexity. Both technical complexity as well as, more importantly, complexity in the overall user model.”
Direct sync is less expensive than cloud sync, but is definitely not just the cheap option. It has to be deeply baked into a product both technically and on the business and marketing sides, to overcome challenges of usability and utility. It can be done. The two products I cover here that offer direct sync, Cubby and CrashPlan, both exploit direct sync’s unique virtues to make it a value-add to products that are primarily cloud sync engines.
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