Driven to despair by Google Drive

Last month I wrote a disappointed blog post about how Google seems to be losing sight of the user focus that once made it great. Over the weekend I experienced another example of this.

First, a bit of background. I love Dropbox. Everybody loves Dropbox. But over the years I’ve found its free space allowance a bit of a squeeze. I’ve tried SkyDrive as an alternative, but I don’t like the online interface. I’ve tried Barracuda Networks’ Copy service, which certainly gives you plenty of space – but it hasn’t proved wholly reliable when it comes to syncing file A to computer B.

So last week, when Google announced that anyone setting up Quickoffice before 26 September would get an extra 10GB of storage for the next two years, I decided to switch to Google Drive as my everyday tool for keeping my work PC, home PC and laptop in sync.

Big mistake. Huge.

Copies, copies everywhere

In fairness, I probably didn’t set up Google Drive in the expected way. Since I already had copies of my data on all three computers, I figured I could save myself a day of syncing by installing the Google Drive client on each of them, then copying the files directly into each one’s Google Drive folder.

This didn't have the time-saving effect I'd hoped. Instead, it apparently prompted Google Drive to try to send a copy of every file to every computer. When I checked my Google Drive folder the next day I found it full of second and third copies of files, with "(1)" and "(2)" suffixes.

This was a pain, not least because uploading everything in triplicate had maxed out my Google Drive account – a bad situation to be in, since Google shares your online storage quota across its various services. When I checked my Gmail, I saw an ominous warning advising that if I didn't clear out some space (or buy some more), I'd no longer be able to send and receive email. So this wasn't a situation I could ignore.

Well, I thought, there’s a simple way round this. On my desktop PC, I spent a few minutes clearing out the unwanted duplicates from my Google Drive folder; then I made a complete backup copy of the folder on my hard disk, went into the Google Drive web interface, sent everything to the trash and hit Empty Bin. Bam: day zero.

Finally, with my space freed up, I copied my files back into the Google Drive folder, sat back and waited – like I probably should have done in the first place – for the syncing engine to do its thing.

Even though I thought I had backups of all my files, I’ve managed to permanently lose dozens of documents

It was a simple solution, but not, it turns out, a wholly effective one. All my local files are now safely up in the cloud, including all the .gdoc and .gsheet files that represent my Google Documents and Spreadsheets. Unfortunately, on trying to open them I've discovered that these files don’t contain any actual data. They’re merely links to cloud-based originals. Originals which were purged, along with everything else, on day zero. With no possibility of recovery.

So here I am. Even though I thought I had backups of all my files, I’ve managed to permanently lose dozens of documents, including personal projects I’d been working on for more than a year.

In fairness, when you empty the bin, an alert does pop up advising you that “Google Docs [...] are links to files stored online”. Naively, I took this to mean that deleting these files would not remove the online Docs, like deleting a shortcut to a website. I don't know, maybe that's my own mistake. See what you think:

The sad lesson

Regardless of Google's phrasing, ultimately I've no one to blame but myself. I entrusted the safety of my data to a free, third-party service, and under pressure I hit the delete button without properly understanding the ramifications.

All the same, I can’t help but feel let down. If I was complacent about my data, it was only because years of experience with Google services had taught me to implicitly trust them to do the right thing. In the event here's what I actually took away from my Google Drive experience:

• Syncing doesn’t work, at least not in a sane way. I've never seen Dropbox, SkyDrive or Copy go spawning duplicates all over the shop when a file is found to exist on two PCs.

• Delete means delete; unlike in other syncing services, deleted files in Drive are gone for good. Yes, a recycle-type bin is provided, but since its contents count towards your quota, in a situation like mine you have little option but to empty it. Your best bet for mitigating the risk of losing something important is to back up your files locally, but even if you have such a system in place...

• Your online documents aren't backed up anywhere. With the standard Drive / Docs setup, if you accidentally delete the wrong online file, your backups won't help you. It is technically possible to make Google Docs available offline, and to back them up yourself; but that process isn't automatic, it's certainly not well exposed within the interface, and it relies on the Chrome Drive app – so the estimated 80-odd percent of the world that uses a different browser needn't apply.

In all, I have to say my Google Drive experience has been a dead loss. Far from solving my problems, it's led to me losing countless hours of work. Once again, I must remind myself that the Google brand doesn’t automatically promise a high-quality, user-centric product. Maybe it did once, but it doesn’t now.

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