Review : Dropbox Paper is Paper Thin

Dropbox Paper, currently in Beta, is the latest product from online collaboration company, Dropbox. Based on their Hackpad acquisition and formerly called Notes, Paper is entering into the crowded fields of collaborative writing applications. Its competitors include Evernote, Box Notes, Quip, and even Google Docs and Microsoft OneNote and Word. Paper follows the model of Evernote and Box Notes more closely in that it presents a minimal and clean interface with fewer formatting and organizational capabilities than word processors such as Google Docs or Microsoft Word.

Like Evernote and Box Notes, Paper is best used for writing quick documents and sharing them. There are a small amount of formatting capabilities as well as the ability to include pictures and attach files. The theory is that it is easier for teams to communicate ideas by not getting caught up in the writing and instead dropping in content that is relevant and sharing it. Paper certainly follows this philosophy closely by providing an easy to use interface (primarily because there isn’t much there) and a commenting capability similar to Microsoft Office Online’s.

Unfortunately, the usefulness of Paper is hindered by a number of missing features. Even for a Beta product these are glaring omissions.

  • Organizational tools are mostly missing. Outside the ability to create sections headers (H1, H2, etc.) there is no way to break documents into smaller chunks. This makes Paper documents look like a stream of consciousness. In all fairness, Evernote and Box Notes are the same. This is likely an intentional part of the design. You can organize using folders and sub-folders but that creates collections of documents and not well-organized ones. That means it’s fine for taking quick notes but not for content creation or organizing projects. This is a stark contrast to Microsoft OneNote’s page and tab interface.
  • Paper doesn’t store notes in Dropbox folders. Paper has its own folder system and documents are not stored in an end-user’s Dropbox folders. This simply makes no sense. All of an end-user’s files may be stored in DropBox folders but their Paper notes are in a different set of folders. The Paper folders are not synced with the desktop either. This is unique to Paper and not in a good way. Why would anyone want to keep Paper notes separate from other files, especially project files? It doesn’t make sense at all.
  • There doesn’t seem a way to turn Paper notes into formal documents. If a team is just pushing ideas around then Paper is perfectly adequate. If a note needs to be turned into a formal document such as a PowerPoint deck, Word document, or even a PDF, there’s no good way to export the note into those formats. Sure, cut and paste works and one can always print to a PDF using a printer driver but this is not the most user friendly way to do this. Exporting to a common format and putting it into your Dropbox folders seems obvious.
  • No Android mobile app. There may be an iOS app comign since there was a Hackpad iOS app but there certainly is no Android one. How can a major company launch into Beta without an Android app? It boggles the mind.
  • The UI needs work. It isn’t obvious how you access formatting features. Sometimes you hover over the empty space and see a circle with a cross in it. Other times you select text. In either case, a toolbar pops up with mostly different but some overlapping functions. It’s not at all intuitive. Quip doesn’t something similar but you can always access the toolbar via a right-click. Obvious, obvious, obvious.

More than anything, it’s not clear why we need Paper or why Dropbox would put so much effort and money into it. If the point is to have a note taking and sharing application for Dropbox fanatics, then why aren’t Paper notes kept with other Dropbox files? If it’s a new way to collaborate and work, then why is it so similar to Box Notes and Evernote? Is it minimalism for the sake of minimalism? It can’t compete for collaborative content creation with Quip, Google Docs, or Microsoft Word. Paper doesn’t support semi-structured note taking like Microsoft OneNote (a key function for projects) or easy web clipping like Evernote. It doesn’t even sync notes to the desktop like… well, everyone else.

Paper is too little too late or misconceived form the start. It’s the kind of minimalist application that a handful of team members might start using but quickly outgrow. Dropbox is launching it into a crowded field of well-established players including Box, Google, and Microsoft. The worst part of Paper is that it is removed from Dropbox proper which will surely irritate the Dropbox aficionados. Simple put: It is not clear why someone would use Paper when there are so many better choices already available. Maybe version two will be better.

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