Dropbox: disruptor or flash-in-the-pan?

After Dropbox made it easier to move digital photos from smartphones to the cloud on Friday, the debate as to whether Dropbox itself is the next big disruptor or just a feature to be acquired or co-opted flared anew. The debate boils down to whether the web needs a neutral storage service that works pretty well with all the major technology platforms or if ease of use and synching is paramount.

By all accounts, Dropbox provides a slick way to upload and store digital paraphernalia in the cloud. From there, users can access their stuff from any device and sync files across devices. The service has been hugely popular: As of four months ago, Dropbox claimed more than 45 million users. But the success of the five-year-old company has bred imitators and competitors, including the biggest companies in tech.

The new private camera upload feature will let users take their photos as always but then easily move them from smartphone, tablet, camera or SD card to their cloud data trove using Wi-Fi or their cellular data plans. Dropbox uploads the photos and videos in their original size and full resolution to the user’s camera upload location. The feature is available now for Android (s goog) phones with Windows,(s msft) Mac (s aapl) and iOS support to come, Dropbox said.

Hardware makers hedge with Dropbox

This is one example of how Dropbox is trying to stay ahead of the curve and make itself an indispensable tool for connected consumers. In that, it has some formidable partners. Just this weekend at the Mobile World Congress, HTC said buyers of its new HTC One phones will get 25 gigabytes of Dropbox storage free for two years. Handset makers like HTC see Dropbox alliances as a way to combat Apple’s iCloud initiative.

Dropbox’s popularity has certainly been noted. Companies from Microsoft(s msft) to Apple and (probably) Google(s goog) are trying to mimic its capabilities. “Everyone wants to be Dropbox,” Andres Rodriguez, the CEO of storage specialist Nasuni, told me recently. Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple, reportedly wanted to buy the company. When that didn’t work out, Jobs called Dropbox “a feature, not a company”  and launched iCloud.

That “feature versus company” meme has dogged Dropbox ever since and cropped up again this weekend when PandoDaily’s Farhad Manjoo weighed in on Jobs’ side of the debate:

Dropbox is a great little file-syncing app, and founder Drew Houston and crew are already making some nice money out of it. But is it a $40 billion company? I doubt it. And when I hear folks like Benchmark’s Bill Gurley suggesting that it might be, and calling Dropbox “a major disruption,” I wonder if they’ve simply been blinded by the thrill of using an obviously well-crafted utility.

Dropbox is slick, and it supports nearly all the relevant clients. But in Manjoo’s experience, that support is uneven. Dropbox is often flummoxed by OS- and application-level problems, he wrote.

But any neutral party without access to Apple’s native hardware hooks will be somewhat stymied. Plus, that only takes into account some of Dropbox’s value, argues Posterous co-founder and venture capitalist Garry Tan. On his blog, Tan writes that the tech giants (Google, Apple, Microsoft) that make their own OSes and applications have no incentive to make them sync well with others.

What are the odds of Apple getting their sync client right for PC’s? Just about zero, considering what they’ve done in the past with MobileMe sync.

Same goes for Microsoft writing sync software for the Apple platform. Arguably Google is in the best shape to provide a seamless multiplatform experience . . . well, except for iOS! The odds of a viable multi-platform option emerging from one of these big three seem slim to me.

Those who forget history . . .

The cautionary tale for Dropbox is that the best technology doesn’t always win. (I would insert the Betamax vs. VHS argument here, but no one remembers it anymore.) Should Microsoft, Apple or Google offer at least reasonably good cross-platform file storage and sync capabilities, Dropbox will be in trouble. Working in Dropbox’s favor is that CEO Drew Houston appears acutely aware of history.

According to this Forbes magazine account, when Apple announced iCloud, Houston shot off a memo to employees, reaffirming the company’s status as one of the fastest-growing companies in the world. Then he listed several other once-fast-growing companies: MySpace, Netscape, Palm and Yahoo.

Photo courtesy of Dropbox