Google Drive: It's slick, integrated...and not exactly free

The online file storage and sync service is more than just a Dropbox and SkyDrive competitor. Because it can cost users real money, it makes us into customers, not just eyeballs for advertisers.

Google Drive icon

Google is set today to open Google Drive, a service to store files online and share them among various computing devices that turns out to be a lot more important than you might think.

Why? Two reasons:

  • First, Google's service goes well beyond rivals because of integration with Google Docs, Google+, Gmail, and other services.
  • Second, beyond a basic free level, ordinary consumers will pay to use Google Drive -- not much, but enough to make them into customers, not just users of an advertising-subsidized service. That's a pretty big philosophical shift for Google.

What is Google Drive?
Google Drive, at its core, looks a lot like Dropbox: you install software on a device running Windows, Mac OS X, Android, and "in coming weeks," iOS. That device gets a special Google Drive folder that synchronizes its files with a mirror stored online.

If you copy or save a new file to the folder, or if you upload one to the Google Drive site online, the technology automatically replicates it at all other Google Drive locations. On my Android tablet, though, you'll need a network connection to actually see the files behind the file names.

"You can take all your data, regardless of which device you're on, and make it seamlessly available to you," said Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Google's Chrome and Apps projects. "We want you to think of this as the center of your Google apps experience."

It's very useful, as Dropbox users can attest. I use Dropbox often, for example saving a PDF of my airplane boarding pass and a subway map when I'm at my computer, then pulling them up on my mobile phone when I need them even if I'm in a foreign country without my usual wireless service.

But Google outdoes Dropbox by giving you 5GB of capacity for free, 25GB for $2.49 a month, or 100GB for $4.99 a month -- via Google Wallet, of course. (Or, if you're feeling like pushing the envelope, there are other tiers including $50 a month for 1TB and $800 a month for 16TB.) Dropbox's free tier ends at 2GB (unless you cajole your friends into joining with your referral code), then jumps to $9.99 monthly for 50GB or $19.99 monthly for 100GB.

That's more expensive than the existing Google prices for overflow storage space at Picasa and Google Docs, which can be had for $50 a year for 200GB compared to $210 for Google Drive. That's because Google expects much more active use, with data being sent to and from multiple devices frequently. "This is something we expect people to use with high utilization a lot," Pichai said

There are plenty of other Google Drive competitors , too -- for example, Box, SugarSync, Mozy's Stash, Apple's iCloud, Adobe's upcoming Creative Cloud , Yandex , and Microsoft's SkyDrive, which just yesterday added for-fee storage tiers and reduced its free space from 25GB to 7GB for new customers.

Those are straightforward comparisons, but Google Drive isn't such a simple alternative. Here's why.

Google Drive lets people view files as meaningful thumbnails through the Web interface. Integration of Google Goggles lets the service recognize some images, in this case finding images of Mount Everest. And it transcodes videos into multiple formats for viewing with a variety of browsers and devices.
Google Drive lets people view files as meaningful thumbnails through the Web interface. Integration of Google Goggles lets the service recognize some images, in this case finding images of Mount Everest. And it transcodes videos into multiple formats for viewing with a variety of browsers and devices. Google

Google Docs integration
First, Google Drive isn't just a sync-n-share service. It's also the new face of Google Docs, a replacement for the documents list that serves as file manager for the cloud-computing productivity suite.

Google Docs isn't everybody's cup of tea, but it's powerful and useful to some of us who spend a lot of our lives tethered to an Internet connection and who need to collaborate with coworkers on documents. And it's a steadily more capable alternative to Microsoft Office for anyone who finds Microsoft Word a relic of a bygone age.

The constructive way to approach Google Docs is not as a full-on replacement for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, but instead as a useful online tool. And given that thousands of new users likely will sign up for Google Drive today, it's likely that Google will have lots of new chances to try to convince people Google Docs is worth using.

With Google Drive, it's easier to dump Office if you want. I have several gigabytes of Office files and notes gathering dust; by copying them to the Google Drive folder on my computer or uploading them to the Google Drive Web site, I can unify that archive with my more recent work. That means, for example, that I can search for all manner of data at the Google Drive site.

Any uploaded files count toward your Google Drive storage quotas, but Google Docs files don't, said Scott Johnston, the product manager in charge of Google Drive.

Google Drive syncs files across personal computers, Google's Web-accessible servers, and mobile devices. This shows documents using the iPad interface, which Google plans to release in coming weeks.
Google Drive syncs files across personal computers, Google's Web-accessible servers, and mobile devices. This shows documents using the iPad interface, which Google plans to release in coming weeks. Google

Note that Google is applying its data-extraction technology to whatever you upload to Google Drive for personal searching purposes. Its Google Goggles technology scours images for recognizable text and images -- a Coca-Cola logo pops to the front of the search results even though it's only in a photo, for example, and Google uses optical character recognition (OCR) technology to try to extract text from PDFs.

Because Google Drive copies file names to your local hard drive, your Windows or Mac machine can find them through search that way, too. However, at this stage, the contents of the files aren't indexed, though Google is working on that too. Opening one of the files through Windows Explorer or Mac OS X's Finder takes you to a copy of the file in your browser.

But just because you see those file names on your hard drive drive, don't get your hopes up that you won't always need a network connection. As with Google Docs today, offline access to Google Docs documents is limited to seeing the files but not editing them.

"We are working feverishly for offline editing," Pichai said. "That's an important for us."

New user interface
The fact that Google Drive is Google Docs' new front end will likely throw some existing Docs users for a loop. All those files that you just hid from the documents list now return in their full sprawling glory in the main screen of your Google Drive folder and documents list. Pichai said some existing users create a special archive folder to sweep away the clutter and get a fresh start. That seems sensible to me.

I also missed the Google Docs interface that listed the most recently used documents at the top. But Google Drive's online interface offers a couple alternatives: recently used files, which is OK but gets cluttered if you use a lot of folders (which Google calls collections), and the "activity list," which is my preferred entry point. It puts the most recently used files at the top of the list but lets you hide files or collections you don't want to see.

Google Drive will extend beyond Google Docs, too. Initially, people will be able to share photos stored from it on Google+ and later, people will be able to attach and save attachments in Gmail using Google Drive.

"This is something you can integrate into your Google experience," Pichai said.

Also coming later will be integration with Chrome OS, Google's browser-based operating system. "After launch, will be launching deep integration in Chrome OS," Johnston said.

Google Drive integrates with other Google services, in this case letting a person post a file to Google+. Gmail integration is coming so Google Drive documents can be used as attachments, and a link to Chrome OS file management also is planned.
Google Drive integrates with other Google services, in this case letting a person post a file to Google+. Gmail integration is coming so Google Drive documents can be used as attachments, and a link to Chrome OS file management also is planned. Google

The service also is notable because it's from a cloud-computing powerhouse. There are many people who aren't sold on the merits of leaving your precious data in another company's control, but there also are plenty who find it an acceptable tradeoff. Among them are Google Apps customers, for example, who pay $50 per year for access to Google Docs, Google Calendar, Gmail, and a collection of other services.

I expect people will steadily become more comfortable leaving their data in third-party hands, if for no other reason than it's hard not to with the spread of Facebook and Web-based e-mail. And for those who accepted Google's new unified terms of service , Google Drive will be a foundation.

Providing extra incentive will be third-party tools that build upon Google Drive. For example, Aviary and Pixlr offer an online image editor, WeVideo offers online video editing, Docusign lets people sign documents and save updated versions, and HelloFax lets people send Google Drive files as faxes and receive faxes as Google Drive documents.

Google Drive files show on a computer's regular file system, where people can copy, move, delete, or modify them. Google Docs files are opened in a browser.
Google Drive files show on a computer's regular file system, where people can copy, move, delete, or modify them. Google Docs files are opened in a browser. Google

New paying customers
Google Drive is a very different approach to how Google makes money. In the past, for the most part it's been selling ads online -- search ads for the most part but increasingly the more graphical display ads, too.

With that structure, Google subsidized all manner of projects that secondarily serve the goal of driving search and therefore ad traffic. Android is the best example: a huge amount of engineering work that Google gives away for free.

The approach comes with a tension between Google motives: is a particular service intended to benefit the advertisers or the users? It's necessarily a combination in most instances -- emphasizing one or the other too much would cause problems, as newspaper publishers can attest.

There's been a big exception in Google Apps, but that's chiefly for businesses, schools, and other organizations. Google Drive is for mainstream consumers. (A Google Apps version of Google Drive will arrive for Google Apps admins on the rapid-release track "over the next few weeks," Google said; it'll also include 5GB free but monthly prices beyond that will be somewhat more expensive, for example $4 a month for 20GB or $89 per month for 1TB.)

The difference between paying directly or indirectly for Google services is subtle, to be sure. But I think it reworks the relationship the company has with its users. With Google Drive, Google primarily needs to be looking out for us, not using us as a means to an end.

"It is a subscription model for consumers, which we haven't done a whole lot of," Pichai said. "It puts us in a new relationship with the user...It's an important thing. We're very committed to doing well by it to make sure they're well supported."

Of course, not everybody will be a paying customer. "I think 5GB is plenty go get started. but for a lot of consumers, 25GB is a very attractive tier," Pichai said.

Personally, though I like free stuff as much as the next person, I'm attracted by the idea of paying services from Google. It could go little ways toward helping the company better align its interests with those of the user.

 

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