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Dropbox launches quick file previews for photos, documents

The storage company says it's making a move away from files to content. The challenge it faces will be retaining its signature simplicity as it revamps the service for a mobile world.


Dropbox introduced new ways to see inside files today, releasing preview features for its website giving users a quick look at photos and other documents.

The company also signaled a new way of thinking about its service, putting a new visual emphasis on content stored inside the service.

"This is part of a shift we're seeing that is sort of under way at Dropbox," said Chris Beckmann, product manager for products at Dropbox.

From its inception, Dropbox has used the metaphor of a "magic folder" -- throw a file into the folder anywhere, and you can access it from everywhere. The elegance of that metaphor, combined with Dropbox's uncommonly good execution, has helped it grow to 100 million users and become the default way of sharing files for much of the connected world.

At the same time, mobile operating systems including iOS and Android have excelled by making file systems invisible. Many users simply never grew comfortable with the files-and-folders metaphor of Windows, Mac OS X, and the like. As more Internet usage goes mobile, a magic folder runs the risk of looking outdated. Increasingly, users don't want to see the file name -- they want to see the file itself.

The features Dropbox showed off today do just that. A new feature called Documents Preview lets users see inside common file types from Dropbox's website, similar to the Quick Look feature in Mac OS X. Over the next few months, all users will be able to click on files stored at and see previews of file types including RTF, PDF, Microsoft Word, and PowerPoint (but not Excel -- that one will be available shortly, the company said).

The company also revamped photo views on, laying out users' photos in a grid of thumbnails and organizing them by chronology. It's one of a number of moves Dropbox has made over the last year to update the look of its photo products; a similar view has already launched in Dropbox's Android app. As part of the new look, Dropbox is also making photos easier to share. Users can select photos from the Web viewer and create new albums to share via Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail.

Dropbox started building its new way of viewing files on the Web because it's broadly accessible and works across platforms. But eventually these views will come to iOS, Android, and the desktop, said Ramesh Balakrishnan, an engineer on the photos team.

The challenge Dropbox faces as it updates its file views will be retaining its signature simplicity as it revamps the service for a mobile world. The features shown off at Dropbox headquarters today are designed to make it easier to view and share files, but they still may come as a surprise to those used to the traditional list of file names.

Still, folks will have some time to get used to the idea -- the features will be rolling out to users over the next few months, Dropbox says.