Yesterday, Google finally announced Google Drive, a Dropbox-like expansion of Google Docs. Google Drive allows you to sync your files between multiple Windows, Mac, and Android devices, and an iOS app is coming soon.

So does Google Drive herald the beginning of the end of desktop computing? Possibly. But at the moment, it’s just a promising alternative to Dropbox, iCloud, SkyDrive, and similar services. Here’s an overview of Google Drive — and its warts.

Key features

Like my pre-Google Drive favorite, Dropbox, Google Drive lets you sync your files across multiple computers by installing a small utility. You can access those same files online via Google Drive, which is basically the same interface as Google Docs. It also lets you share files or folders with others, so you could share your /Client Files folder with your coworkers or /Personal Finances folder with your spouse or partner. Again, just like Dropbox.

This also means that, since you can get your files onto your computer, you can easily backup most of your files that are stored on your Google Drive. (I say most because documents in Google Docs formats don’t actually sync to your hard drive; you just get a shortcut to the file.) Previously, you would have to use another service like Backupify to do that.

You can open over 30 kinds of files right in your browser. It also promises app integration, so that you can open files directly in web apps, like a web-based image editor for photos. In other words, Google Drive will be the “missing link” that makes the cloud work by tying together all the great cloud services with a universal backend that serves as the cloud’s operating system. No more emailing documents to yourself to get them from your iPad to your computer.

For more about the hands-on experience of using Google Drive, check out the Verge, which posted a hands-on guide to Google Drive on the web, Windows, Mac, and Android. The Verge also published a useful comparison of Google Drive, Dropbox, SugarSync, Insync, LogMeIn Cubby, iCloud, SkyDrive, Mozy Stash, SpiderOak, AVG LiveKive, Wuala, Box, and Syncplicity (i.e., all the file sync utilities worth considering.

It will take time for other apps to embrace Google Drive the way they have Dropbox, but it will happen fairly quickly, especially since Google released the Google Drive SDK at the same time it announced the service. Once you can sync up documents from your iPad to your Google Drive, so that they also appear on your laptop and your phone, it will be a truly killer app.

Security, and privacy implications

Like Dropbox, Google Drive does not encrypt your files before uploading them, although it does upload your files over an encrypted “pipe.” This isn’t as secure as it could be, but encrypting your files before transport would mean giving up much of the functionality available from the web interface.

Everybody tends to freak out about Google’s privacy policy. Look, read Graham Martin’s analysis of the privacy policy, as well as the privacy policy itself. And remember that, even if you decide not to use Google because it weirds you out that Google indexes your stuff in order to serve you ads, just remember that the majority of people you correspond with, including your clients, probably have accounts with Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, etc., and everything you send those people is getting indexed in order to display ads, anyway. There’s really no getting around it, so get over it, or else conduct all your correspondence by mail from now on.

That said, Google’s terms of service could use some clarity. I’m quite certain, contrary to CNET’s breathless proclamation that Google owns everything you upload to Google Drive, that the only reason Google requires a license is so that it can deliver the service, and so that they work in the way everyone expects them to work. (Also, a license is not the same as ownership, CNET!) For example, if you add a business to Google Maps, you wouldn’t expect the business to disappear just because you close your Google account.

It wouldn’t hurt for Google to take a page out of Dropbox’s clearly-drafted terms, however. By comparison, Google’s terms are a morass of legal mumbo-jumbo.

Should you switch to Google Drive?

I’ve installed Google Drive and synced it up to the files that were already in my Google Docs account. It was quick and painless, and everything synced up with impressive speed.

That said, I’m not jumping into it as my primary file sync utility just yet. I want to see Google work out the kinks, first — technical and legal — before I decide to trust Google with my client files.

  • Dan Sherman

    Nilay Patel has a great write up on the Verge of the different privacy policies. His thought is that Google’s (and Microsoft’s) policies are actually better because they are more specific.

    That doesn’t matter as much to me though, because I use Google Apps, which has a different policy.

    Either way, the Gmail policy is the same as the Drive policy, and I trust Gmail…

    Once Google Drive offers a LAN Sync equivalent and an iOS app I’m switching over.

    • I think Google’s intentions are fine, but I agree with the critics that it needs to clarify its TOS now that it has released Google Drive.