Dropbox Deprecates APIs and Prioritizes User Collaboration
October 23rd marked the end of support for the Dropbox Sync API and Datastore API. The deprecation of both APIs was anounced in a blog post in April this year, coinciding with the preview of the new Dropbox Core API v2, so Dropbox has given six months notice before terminating support and twelve months notice before turning off the endpoints in April 2016.
The Datastore API allowed developers to save structured data such as contacts, to-do lists and application state to Dropbox. The company states that it deprecated this API because of lack of adoption. Too few developers means that Dropbox cannnot justify the cost and effort for supporting the API. Dropbox asked users of the Datastore API to contact them directly for alternatives, an action which seems to confirm that the affected number of developers is relatively small. Nick Craig-Wood, primary contributor to the open-source application rclone, reported a conversation with Dropbox Support in which they recommended a number of options, including switching to an alternative Datastore such as Parse or Firebase.
Deprecation of the more popular Sync API met with a mixed reaction. A blog entry on the Filepicker site welcomed the deprecation, stating that the Synch API and SDK had "caused many headaches for developers, with many (accidentally) opting for Core when they should have chosen Sync and vice versa." This sentiment confirms Dropbox's first reason for the deprecation, to provide all the required capabilities in a "single and comprehensive" SDK as part of the Core API v2.
The second reason for Dropbox's action on Sync underlines the difficulty of providing a "one size fits all" solution to the complex problem of file synchronization and conflict detection. The company's announcement states that the Sync API implementation was "complex, requiring our team to make trade-offs which made it hard to meet the needs of all developers." This rationale lay behind some of the negative reactions to the news. Developers don't necessarily want to reinvent their own synchronization logic and in various online forums, developers expressed either dissatisfaction or confusion about about the support for synchronization in the new Core API v2.
Beyond the technical details of these API changes, there are larger moves afoot in Dropbox's overall strategy. Since March this year, Dropbox has been running a private beta program for a collaborative document editor which is now known as Dropbox Paper. Early reviewers such as Tech Insider report that Paper is a minimalist document editor with support for multi-user real-time collaboration, synchronizations, comments and multi-media content. Many reviewers have pointed out that this product puts Dropbox in head-on competition with Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365.
Earlier this month, Dropbox announced a partnership with Adobe which allows Dropbox files to be accessed inside Adobe Acrobat. Future features include iOS annotations and comments on PDFs stored in Dropbox, adding another feature to a nascent collaboration platform aimed at users, rather than developers.
Steve Nellis, writing in The Information (a paid site) links the Sync API deprecation and the latest user collaboration developments together. He observes that Dropbox is shifting priorities toward features that keep users within its own apps rather than supporting third-party apps. "Dropbox had a unique opportunity to be a storage and sync utility for databases that would work well across platforms—its most useful function among consumers" but has decided not to pursue it, writes Nellis
Time will tell what the bigger Dropbox picture leads to and in the meantime, Sync API users are without support and still waiting on the Dropbox Core API v2, which remains in "preview" status.