Google Drive vs Dropbox, and of the Babelian Library

If Google Drive had launched in 2006, Dropbox wouldn’t be a $4 billion company today
By Justin Rosenstein, Co-Founder of Asana

I led the development of an early fully-working version of Google Drive, but failed to ship it under some pretty crazy circumstances. In the process, I learned about the importance of clear, confident communication. Here’s my story.

In 2004, when I was 20, I left college early to join Google. Google was pre-IPO, and on the excited lips of every computer science student I knew. So when I got the job, I was elated.

Larry Page was one of my idols. The more I got to know him, the more I admired him. Larry is brilliant. Freakishly brilliant. A true visionary. Every time he hears an idea, he pushes back: why can’t we do it bigger? bolder? more encompassing? I think the only reason he doesn’t receive the kind of hero-worship that you saw of Steve Jobs is that he lacks the ego and showmanship.

I was asked to product manage an exciting skunk works project. We code-named it Platypus, but it was clear what we wanted to call it when it launched: Gdrive. After a couple years, we had a product that synced your files across your computers, let you share them with others, and worked on Windows, Mac, Linux, and the Web. This thing was so useful it was amazing.

But when I brought it to Larry, he said he didn’t want to launch it. He wanted a more unified Google, and didn’t want Gdrive to ship until it did a bunch of other things like integrate deeply into Google Docs. There were a number of reasons, both technical and organizational, that those integrations were extremely difficult — including the fact that the Google Docs team understandably didn’t want to complicate their product with folder hierarchies at all!


Of course, maybe I still wouldn’t have convinced him, but, in hindsight, I think I just didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t have enough confidence I was right. I also didn’t have the organizational capital to influence the Google Docs team, and so when Dustin asked me in 2007 to join Facebook, I left Google without completing the project. Google eventually launched an integrated Gdrive five years later, but by then file-sharing competitor Dropbox had already risen to 50M users.

My failure to convince Larry Page helped make Dropbox a $4 billion company.

There was so much gossip and buzz from beta Gdrive users some years back about just when Gdrive will officially launch and integrate with Goggle Docs. Now we have the insider’s account of just what happened.

But I can certainly understand the Google Docs team’s concern:
“the Google Docs team understandably didn’t want to complicate their product with folder hierarchies at all!”

My own struggle with my personal ‘babel database’ project over the last twenty years (on and off) had been focused on exactly that, controlling and flattening folder hierarchies which would otherwise grow unrestrained and overwhelm even the most sophisticated and robust of database structures. Hence my early realization in my youth that it is all about the Index: a robust and simple system of classifying and indexing multiple data (points and format) that is resistant to overgrowth and complexity.
But of course, we must never forget that in the end, it all comes to nought. Or Everything.



Plot summary

Borges’s narrator describes how his universe consists of an enormous expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival—and four walls of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just a few basic characters (23 letters, spaces and punctuation marks). Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for many of the texts some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of a vast number of different contents.

Despite — indeed, because of — this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair.


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