A defining technology of our age is the sync. Keeping your files synchronized between devices, whether by Dropbox or Google Drive or iCloud, is the starting point for so much of our work. Syncing is also a chore: it can create multiple copies of files, which must then be reconciled. It can fail to work automatically, forcing you to sync manually (looking at you, Evernote). Or it simply fails to work, leaving you without an important file at the moment you need it.
The drawbacks of syncing were not lost on Bertrand Serlet, the former senior vice president of software engineering for Apple. Serlet spent eight years at Steve Jobs’ NeXT and 14 more at Apple following its acquisition, and in those years Apple made a cautious, then enthusiastic embrace of cloud computing. And while iCloud improved vastly on the failures of MobileMe, Serlet thinks he can do it one better. Upthere, a company he founded in 2011 to do just that, is emerging from stealth today with a big idea: syncing is dead, and in the future we'll save all our files directly to the cloud.
"No one did what we envisioned. So we started from scratch."
The detailed version of what Upthere is doing is technical even by Verge standards. Suffice to say the company says it has built a new way of saving, storing, and organizing files, and done it in a way that takes advantage of the cloud. It pays special attention to metadata, enabling faster searches. "There was no one who did what we envisioned," Serlet said in an interview with The Verge. "So we started from scratch."
Today you can sign up on a waitlist to try Upthere’s first two products, which are now in beta on iOS, Android, and Mac. (A PC version is forthcoming.) First is Upthere Camera, which saves your photos directly to the cloud. You can also create shared "cameras" with friends and family, and receive notifications whenever someone contributes to the album. It’s a low-key, cross-platform version of iCloud Photo Sharing.
The second product is Upthere Home, which organizes all the documents you have stored with the service so you can browse them. On one tab you can view your photos; on another you can listen to the MP3s you have stored; on another you can view (but not edit) work documents like Word files and PDFs. Here the appeal is a little clearer than with the camera: you can stream your entire cloud library to any device, without having to download or sync any of those files to a new device.
But what happens when you're offline?
Of course, there’s an obvious downside to a purely cloud-based storage service: those times when you’re not connected to the internet. Even at a time when reliable Wi-Fi is more widespread than ever, I still regularly find myself without it: in airports, on airplanes, in coffeeshops, at the doctor’s office. Upthere says it caches some of your files locally on your device, but if I were a paying customer, I’d need much stronger assurances that I could access my files when I needed them. In the meantime, Upthere CEO Roger Bodamer told me that cloud-based storage is simply the way of the future — and that internet access is quickly catching up with the company’s vision.
From what I saw of Upthere’s first two apps, the service looks speedy and reliable. But while it’s in beta, the company isn’t answering some basic questions about its business: what tiers of storage it will offer, for example, or how they will be priced. Beta testers will get to use the service for free. But if Upthere eventually winds up offering 1 terabyte of storage for $10 a month, the current industry standard, it may not look sufficiently differentiated from its peers. Most people don’t care about the architecture of the file system they’re using — and if it’s built in a way that makes their files unavailable offline, they’re likely to see it as inferior to their current options.
Storage is getting cheaper all the time
Ultimately, I’m skeptical about businesses whose primary offering is file storage. Storage is cheap and getting cheaper all the time. So far, getting people to pay for it has required building elaborate security and collaboration features for enterprises — and then hiring an expensive sales organization to persuade them to buy it. Upthere says it plans to offer an API in hopes that developers will make it the default storage solution for their own apps. It’s a platform play, in other words, and that’s why Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers and Google Ventures are among its investors.
In the meantime, Upthere is pushing the message that cloud-based storage is inevitable — and syncing ought to be a thing of the past. "This is where the world needs to move to," said Chris Bourdon, Upthere’s vice president of product. Right now, the company’s main objective is to get many millions of people storing their files on Upthere. "The business model will come from that," Bourdon said.