Dropbox is launching two different but related AI-powered services into its platform. The first is simple and obvious: a tool for summarizing and querying documents. This is neat and useful and the sort of feature you’ll see in most tools in this category over time.
The other thing Dropbox is launching is much more ambitious and interesting. It’s a universal search engine that can access your files in Dropbox but also across the entire web. It’s called Dash and comes from Dropbox’s 2021 acquisition of a company called Command E. The idea behind Dash, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston tells me, is that your stuff isn’t all files and folders anymore, and so Dropbox can’t be, either. “What used to be 100 files or icons on your desktop,” he says, “is now 100 tabs in your browser, with your Google Docs and your Airtables and Figmas and everything else.” All the tools are better, but they resist useful organization. “So you’re just like, okay, I think someone sent that to me. Was it in an email? Was it Slack? Was it a text? Maybe it was pasted in the Zoom chat during the meeting.” Dash aims to be the “Google for your personal stuff” app that so many others have tried and failed to pull off.
The Dash app comes in two parts. There’s a desktop app, which you can invoke from anywhere with the CMD-E keyboard shortcut, that acts as a universal search for everything on your device and in all your connected apps. (If you’ve ever used an app like Raycast or Alfred as a launcher, Dash will look very familiar.) There’s also a browser extension, which offers the same search but also turns your new tab page into a curated list of your stuff. One section of the Dash start page might include the docs Dropbox thinks you’ll need for the meeting starting in five minutes; another might pull together a bunch of similar documents you’ve been working on recently into what Dropbox calls a “Stack.” You can also create your own stacks, and as you create files and even browse the internet, Dash will suggest files and links you might add.
Tired: Folders. Wired: Stacks.
The term “stacks” is important, by the way. Dropbox has been a files-in-folders company since it was founded in 2007 and is making a conscious break with that paradigm as it leans into all things AI. “There’s no real container that can hold a Google Doc and an Excel spreadsheet and a 10-gig 4K video,” Houston says, and the old organizational systems break down even further as the platform begins to learn that all three of those things are about your house renovation project, and hey, here are some other documents about that project too!
Could you just call all that… a folder? Sure! But the way Dropbox sees it, the concept of folders has so much history that it’s getting in the way. “Folks are looking for an increased kind of flexibility,” says Devin Mancuso, Dropbox’s director of product design, “or when it comes to tabs and apps, they’re thinking about grouping and arranging those in slightly different ways.” You can have a file in multiple stacks, just to name one example, which doesn’t work in a folders world. Houston and Mancuso both compare stacks instead to Spotify playlists in that they’re a mix of personally curated and algorithmically enhanced. Losing the f-word is both a practical design and a philosophical one.
When Houston gave me a demo of Dash working on his own account, his new-tab page pulled up both a bunch of information about me and The Verge (presumably tied to the calendar event that included us both) and built an automated stack of documents related to the planning offsite he and his executives were in the midst of that week. “It’s such a basic concept, right?” he says, mousing around in his browser. “Search that actually works, a collection concept for links and files and any kind of cloud content, bringing machine intelligence into the experience — it’s more of a self-organizing Dropbox. Not everyone has to be their own librarian, filing things away.”
“It’s more of a self-organizing Dropbox. Not everyone has to be their own librarian, filing things away.”
This is, of course, not a new or unique idea. The idea of cross-platform, universal search for your personal data and documents has been around practically as long as the internet. Large language models can definitely make that search more powerful, which is why companies like Mem and Rewind and even Google have been investing in it in big ways.
Houston readily acknowledges that Dropbox isn’t the first company to have this idea, but he thinks Dropbox has one big advantage over most of its competitors in this space: it already has plenty of users and companies uploading all their most important and most sensitive stuff to the platform. Integrating with the Figmas and Airtables of the world is a much easier problem, in some ways, than getting access to your existing file system. “It’s a very natural extension,” Houston says, “to be like, ‘We started with your files, but now we support everything else. Maybe we should have been supporting everything else for a long time.’”
The big question, for Dropbox and everyone else working on this, is security. Here, too, Houston thinks Dropbox has a leg up. “Nobody wants their stuff to be chopped up into little pieces and fed into some kind of advertising machine,” he says. “So the fact that Dropbox is a fundamentally private service, the fact that we’re subscription, the fact that our incentives are aligned, it all helps.” Especially with all your data in the cloud, there are still plenty of questions about how data is accessed, who can see what, how personalized various systems should be, and much more.
As of today, Dropbox AI available to all Pro customers and a few teams, and there’s a waitlist to get into the Dash beta as well. The next phase for Dropbox, Houston says, is to learn what people want and how they use the products. He says he’s happy to be somewhat conservative at first in the name of not making huge mistakes — you really can’t have an AI hallucinating information out of your most sensitive work docs — but he sees this stuff getting better fast.
In general, Dropbox has been thinking about AI integrations for a long time. It’s one of a class of what you might call work-about-work companies, along with Asana, Slack, and others; they’re not the tools you use to get stuff done — they’re the tools for keeping your files in order and your team in sync and your life together. For all these companies, step one was making it easier to manage everything. But that always implied a step two: teach the things to manage themselves. “In the physical world,” Houston says, “the equivalent is to just imagine you have all these papers on your desk, and they’re neatly sorting themselves into piles. That’s great. That’s what we’re building.”