As a historian by training, I try to look at things in chronological order. So I’ll start with what happened first chronologically, even though it wasn’t the first point to come to light. In July 2004, a young software engineer named David Braginsky wrote in his blog that he “became a techlead of project Platypus at Google,” among many other things happening in his life. Sadly, his next update wasn’t for another year, and only mentioned that he “really wants to focus on work.” There are no entries newer than August 2005 and no hints as to what project Platypus actually is.
In September 2005, Garett Rogers posted some speculation in his blog about a new project of Google’s called GDrive. After revealing that Google owns the gbrowser.com domain, he suggests that it could stand for “file browser.” Then he figures that “if google was smart, they would provide some sort of online storage medium that can be accessed from anywhere… a similar 3rd party application had been developed called ‘GDrive’ which utilized GMail as it’s storage. This application has suspiciously been discontinued.” After doing a little digging, Rogers discovered that the gdrive.com domain is owned by the same parties who own the gbrowser.com domain, which leads back to Google. He saw that as convincing evidence that Google is working on a GDrive.
In December 2005, Google bought Writely.com, an online word processor that lets you store your documents securely online. It was by no means the first service that Google made available to its users that allowed them to store content online, nor would it be the last; Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Spreadsheet, Blogger, Google Base, and Picasa, just to name a few, allow users to store and share different kinds of content in a variety of ways. But there’s nothing to tie it all together into one drive, or at least not yet.
Just three months later, Greg Linden checked a slide presentation from a Google Analyst Day and found some interesting notes that reignited the speculation. The note for one of the slides says that Google plans to “get all the worlds information, not just some.” But it’s the notes from slide 19 that are particularly suggestive. They state in part:
“With infinite storage, we can house all user files, including: emails, web history, pictures, bookmarks, etc. and make it accessible from anywhere (any device, any platform, etc)…We already have efforts in this direction in terms of GDrive, GDS, Lighthouse, but all of them face bandwidth and storage constraints today…As we move toward the ‘Store 100%’ reality, the online copy of your data will become your Golden Copy and your local-machine copy serves more like a cache. An important implication of this theme is that we can make your online copy more secure than it would be on your own machine.”
Google quickly took down the notes attached to the slides. Greg Linden posted an update to his blog, stating that “It now appears that many of the notes in the slides were cut-and-pasted from other presentations, never intended for Google Analyst Day.” As it turned out, though, this wouldn’t be the slip that would give the press and the bloggers their biggest field day yet with the mysterious GDrive.
What you see here is a screen shot of a mirror of a page that Corsin Camichel stumbled across on July 10. The original page was removed fairly quickly after its discovery. I apologize for the text not being clearer. So what exactly is it? If we take it at face value, it’s “a filer for the whole world. But better.” It also brings together Platypus and Gdrive.
In fact, at first glance it looks very much like we would expect the opening page for a virtual online hard drive from Google to look. It apparently works with Windows, Mac, and Linux systems. And it lists the advantages of storing your files with Platypus rather than on your hard drive. To quote from the page:
- Backup. If you lose your computer, grab a new one and reinstall Platypus. Your files will be on your new machine in minutes.
- Sync. Keep all your machines synchronized, even if they run different operating systems.
- VPN-less access. Not at a Google computer? View your files on the web at http://troutboard.com/p.
- Collaborate. Create shared spaces to which multiple Googlers can write.
- Disconnected access. On the plane? VPM broken? All your files are still accessible.
It sounds great so far…but there are certain clues that this project is not yet intended for prime time.
It’s entirely possible that the GDrive is meant for internal use of Google employees only. Note the references to “Googlers” and “a Google computer.” Corsin Camichel found the page on Writely, but it wasn’t through a simple process. The Google Blogoscoped blog thinks that “somebody at Writely saved the platypus main page to the server (as indicated by broken image links etc.) for some reason (one reason could be to use it as a template for a new Writely login screen) and somebody just happened to find it.”
There’s more support for this theory when you view the source for the page. It shows that Justin Rosenstein is the author; he’s also the product manager for Google Page Creator, an online tool that lets you create web pages quickly. It appears (like so many of Google’s services) to still be in beta. At any rate, there is more hidden text in the source code; listed after “VPN-less access” is:
- Publish. All of the files you store on Platypus are automatically accessible from the (corporate) web.
- Share. Other Googlers can mount your Platypus folders and open your files in read-only mode.
And after “Collaborate” is this bullet point:
- Local I/O speeds. Open and save as quickly as you could if you were accessing them from your C: drive.
Again, you’ll notice repeated references to Googlers, which is the name Google uses for its employees. And it seems clear that the corporate web reference is to Google’s internal web. So unless you work for Google, it looks like you won’t be reaping the benefits of Platypus any time soon.
This is a shame, because there’s clearly a demand for this kind of product. There are several utilities available that try to create a kind of online hard drive using Gmail’s storage space. And stepping away from Google for a moment, other companies are already trying to provide something of this nature. So if and when Google does get the GDrive out, it could be facing some established competition.
Novell has iFolder (http://www.ifolder.com/index.php/Main_Page), which it turned into an open source project at the end of March. It lets users “back up, access and manage your personal files – from anywhere, at any time…you simply save your files locally…and iFolder automatically updates the files on a network server and delivers them to the other machines you use.” Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect, let slip in an interview with Fortune in April that Microsoft is working on a service called Live Drive that sounds like it will do the same thing as the rumored GDrive. Amazon and Apple also have network storage services, or something similar. Other companies offering web-based storage include Box.net, OmniDrive and Streamload.
As with so many services Google has come out with lately, mere rumors of a GDrive have raised all sorts of questions revolving around trust and privacy. Do you trust Google with your data? Hundreds of thousands of web surfers already do, for certain kinds of data. And frankly, there’s nothing to indicate that GDrive users would be obligated to store all of their data with Google. So hold onto your sensitive financial information, and let Google keep track of your photos or the novel you’re writing in your spare time.
It’s not just Google you should be worried about trusting with your data. The government might be interested in your data too. The Justice Department has already queried search engines for information on user searches, as part of various investigations. The National Security Agency has also collected data, in this case from phone companies, about what numbers customers have called, and how often. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is reportedly thinking about asking ISPs and other companies that provide certain types of Internet services (yes, that would include Google) to keep records of user activity for two years, just in case the government wants to use the information in some sort of investigation.
In light of the civil liberties implications, is it really a good idea to store your information with Google? Unless and until Google comes out with its rumored GDrive, we may never know. If it does, it will probably need to follow certain policies to protect user privacy and to keep user data from falling into the hands of hackers, at the very least.
Still, this may not be as huge of a step as it sounds. The latest version of Google Desktop Search has a feature called Search Across Computers. It allows you to look for and access a file that’s located, say, on your desktop, from your laptop (or vice versa). In order to make this work, Google stores user files temporarily on Google Desktop servers. Plenty of people already use this feature, and it’s easy to see how it could be a lifesaver. How much further is it to go from temporary storage to permanent storage? In any case, if Google does create a GDrive, we will each decide for ourselves whether the convenience is worth the potential risk to our privacy.