When you want to share a file with a colleague, sometimes an email attachment is just fine. But when that file is big, or there are a lot of files, or a lot of colleagues, or there are updates to those files, email attachments quickly become problematic. Thankfully, there are many tools for sharing files online, even for working on them collaboratively. Here are a few popular services that can help you manage file sharing and collaborative digital work.
Dropbox is probably the most popular file sharing service on the web. With a free account, you get 2 gigabytes of storage, and both mobile and desktop apps that sync your data across your devices. Simply put the files you want to sync in the Dropbox folder on your computer, and it automatically syncs to the cloud and your other devices. Sharing those files is also simple: just right-click (or ctrl-click on a Mac with a one-button mouse) and the menu that pops up will now have a Dropbox sharing option, which gives you a link that you can provide to anyone you want to have access to that file. You can also login to Dropbox.com if you need to share a file when you are away from your computer(s) and mobile device(s). If you need more storage, you can pay for more, and there are enterprise pricing plans, as well.
The main downsides to Dropbox are security and simultaneous collaboration. While you can share a file or folder with someone and give them editing privileges, problems can arise if you’re editing the document at the same time. Perhaps more significantly, Dropbox had a major security breach in 2012, and while they promptly informed their customers then, they only this year discovered the extent of the data stolen. So while Dropbox is fine for many people (I still use it myself), you may want to think twice about using it to store or share sensitive information.
Box is another file sharing service, easily confused with Dropbox because of their similar names, features, and branding colors (though Box does use a slightly darker shade of blue!). However, Box does have some distinctive features. They focus more on simultaneous collaboration and security than Dropbox. While I’ve not used the feature myself, they claim that users can work simultaneously on a variety of file types, including Microsoft Word. They also address security issues such as HIPAA compliance and, importantly, allow consumer-controlled encryption keys. That means that even if there is a security breach at Box, if you’ve taken the right steps to protect your private data, all a data thief would find is an unintelligible scramble of numbers and characters that is undecipherable to them. So for uses such as human-subject research data, financial information, and even student data records, Box may be a better solution. They also have a free personal plan starting at 10 GB of storage and a 250 MB file upload limit, as well as a paid “pro” tier and multiple enterprise pricing models (required for the advanced security options).
Google Drive is a popular file sharing service with robust support for online collaboration and simultaneous document editing. Google Drive easily integrates with GMail, Google Docs (word processing, spreadsheets, slide presentations, and online forms), and Google photo storage. Personal users get a combined 15 GB of storage across Google services for free, and robust sharing options via both the web browser interface and a Dropbox-like desktop app and mobile apps. Like Box and Dropbox, there are both paid personal plans that come with additional storage and enterprise plans that increase storage size and facilitate in-organization collaboration.
The main downsides to Google Drive are security and file formats. While you can use Google Drive to share files in any format, their online collaboration tools only work with Google Docs. And while you can export Google Docs in standard file formats, that must be done individually. If you have a lot of Google Docs and want to export them, it is a major undertaking. Even the desktop app only stores links to Google Docs on your computer, while syncing actual files for other formats. Google Drive also does not support the security features of services like Box. In fact, Google mines the data in your Drive rather transparently. While this is in part to make it easier for you to search your own documents, that data is also used to serve up targeted advertisements, and it seems Google is using that data from all users en masse to “improve” their general product line.
OneDrive and iCloud Drive
Windows now includes a file sharing service similar to Dropbox, called OneDrive. If you are fully invested in the Windows ecosystem, it can sync your files across devices (including a Windows phone), and offers a web interface for sharing files through the cloud. It’s particularly helpful for keeping OneNote notebooks and other Microsoft Office files in sync across your home and work devices. However, it lacks some of the features that Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive offer for multi-user collaboration across platforms (Windows, Mac OS, iOS, Android, Linux, etc.).
The same is true for Apple’s iCloud Drive. I haven’t used it personally in its latest version, but it is a helpful tool for connecting multiple Macs and iPads. However, it lacks some of the collaborative features of Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive. And while Apple claims that it can be accessed via a PC, that accessibility is very limited.
If you are all-Apple or all-Microsoft and simply want to sync your own devices, or if you want a way to send a large file or folder to someone else via the web, these are great tools, and they come pre-installed. But if you want to collaborate (especially across platforms), or need advanced security features, they probably fall short of your needs.
If collaborative writing is more your goal than file sharing, there is a growing number of tools available for teams with different goals and workflows, such as Draft, Penflip, Etherpad, and many others. Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris have put together a great annotated list of these tools. Check it out if you’re interested in cloud-based collaborative writing tools.
One valuable tool that Sean and Jesse do not mention is Authorea. Authorea is aimed primarily at academics, especially those in the sciences (LaTeX, anyone?), and is meant to be a single place to “write, cite, collaborate, host, and publish”. Authorea not only offers a place to collaborate online, but also easy formatting for a variety of standard academic citation formats and even pre-fab layouts for a number of popular academic journals. Accounts for public collaboration are free, and those free accounts also support working on a single private article at a time. To collaborate on multiple articles privately, you can get a paid plan, or unlock additional private article capabilities by (successfully) inviting others to join.
There are many tools for file sharing and online collaboration, and these are just a few of them. Hopefully one of them fits your needs. If you find something else that fills a niche not filled by one of these, let us know, and we can add it to the list!
Featured image by Cat Burton, CC BY-NC-ND.