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Sundar Pichai

In advance of the release of Google Drive, I sat down yesterday with Google SVP of Chrome and Apps Sundar Pichai and Google Drive product head Scott Johnston. I asked them to elaborate on how Google Drive emerged from within Google, how the product compares to the competition, and where they see it evolving.

What’s ironic is that Pichai was the guy who helped kill a previous product called Google Drive, or GDrive, as detailed in Steven Levy’s “In the Plex”:

Google was about to launch a project it had been developing for more than a year, a free cloud-based storage service called GDrive. But Sundar had concluded that it was an artifact of the style of computing that Google was about to usher out the door. He went to Bradley Horowitz, the executive in charge of the project, and said, “I don’t think we need GDrive anymore.” Horowitz asked why not. “Files are so 1990,” said Pichai. “I don’t think we need files anymore.”

Pichai is still not a fan of files — in fact, his criticism of Dropbox and others is that they’re all about file management –  but he’s come around on “having data available in context.” Here’s an edited transcript of our chat from yesterday:

Liz Gannes: With Google Drive, you’re straddling distinctions between personal and organizational use, and personal storage versus sharing. As a user of Google Docs, Dropbox and others, I often get confused across that juncture about who can see things. How do you design for that?

Sundar Pichai: We strongly believe in the consumerization of the enterprise, and that’s the pillar of all our Google Apps strategy. At work and at home, we try to bring the same set of products. There’s some work in bridging the shift, but examples like the iPad bridge it pretty well. We have good controls in place — an admin can control when you’re using Drive within a company — but it’s an area we can do a lot more in.

Who can see what’s in my Google Drive folder?

Scott Johnston: This is a big shift, in that, really, the Google Drive folder is yours. Only things go in there that you create or that you move there explicitly. There’s a new “shared with me” view, and then you can move them into your Drive if you want. So it’s really this space that you control.

Do you see people using their Google Drive as their backup for everything?

Pichai: It’s a good question. I’m probably not the best representative use case, but the first time I got my access, I put my family pictures there, for safety and peace of mind. I don’t think that problem is well-solved today, so having a very safe, secure place to store, which is cost-affordable, I think is a good opportunity. We also really want people to have data anytime, anywhere.

So — yes?

Pichai: Yes, it’s a long way of saying yes.

What’s the team that created this project? I know Google Drive had been “killed” internally before, but what about this group?

Scott Johnston

Johnston: I came onboard Google in 2006 when we were acquired at JotSpot, and joined the Docs team. On that team, as we got better and better at collaboration on different file types, we started seeing them more and more in our everyday life; for planning a birthday party or, internally, our designers were constantly sharing mocks. And it was this idea of getting out of the way of the user so they don’t have to think about where their stuff is, and they can just do what they’re trying to do. It was a natural evolution of Docs. This is just more touchpoints to access your data.

Is there continuity with previous Google Drive products?

Pichai: What Scott’s talking about, Google Drive as an evolution of Docs, is one thing. Early on, we had a project called Google Drive that was completely different.

What was different?

Pichai: There was a very traditional file system approach, a long time ago, having nothing to do with Google Docs. It was pre-mobile, pre-tablet, with deep integration into My Documents and Windows, et cetera. So it was very different.

Why is this a good product now?

Pichai: Today, when I look at different solutions out there, those are still in the old metaphor of “here are files that you want, manage them.” This is about you living your life online — planning a wedding, buying a house — and having your data available in that context. I think it’s a big pivot, and that’s what excites me and makes it a good product. It’s in the natural flow.

I wouldn’t underestimate the fact that you can use it not just with Google but with third-party applications over time will be a big differentiator. And third is, deep search is very powerful. There is a lot of deep computer science in there, the fact that you can comment on any file type, that there’s full-text indexing with optical character recognition, all that happens magically with our infrastructure.

Johnston: There’s also being able to offer up to 16 terabytes of storage per user.

It’s kind of unusual for you to ask consumers to pay for Google products, right?

Pichai: Today, people are paying for Gmail and Picasa storage. For power users, it is popular. We’ve kind of made it very hard for you to do, but [Google Drive] is very easy. When you do upgrade here, your Gmail automatically goes up to 25 gigs. Over time, given how much Google Apps are the center of many users’ life, and you want to store safely and securely, I think it’s a good model and it’s a pretty good deal.

I know you’ve been working on Google Drive, in various iterations, for a long time. Why are you releasing it now, especially if some key parts are not done?

Pichai: We wanted all of this to be done — iOS, Gmail, etc. We picked a schedule and, like, 18 things made the train, and two got left out, but they will get added in after. The fact that Gmail got delayed and G+ made it, I wouldn’t have known a month ago.

Is this like the Chrome browser, where you guys promised a Mac version was coming soon, and then it took a couple years?

Pichai: Sorry about that. We dramatically underestimated what it would take to do Chrome on the Mac. IOS is a very different story. It works today. IOS is 98 percent done, and it will be here soon.

No matter what you say or launch, the takeaway is going to be, “Google launches Dropbox competitor.” What do you make of the competitive landscape?

Pichai: I think if we wanted to do it, we would have approached it very differently. We’ve gone to great lengths to built it around an online application experience. We want this to be about creating and collaborating — and your data is there for you. I think others have taken a file/data approach, and saying you have [access to] that everywhere. It’s nuanced, but I think it’s very different.

And for an active Google user, the integration we provide is very valuable. [As for Dropbox,]  I think the work they’ve done is great. This is a secular shift in terms of how people are living in the cloud, and I think it’s good to have innovation in the space.

Are we going to see TV ads for this?

Pichai: Not that I know of.

Johnston: The Super Bowl’s a long time from now.

Pichai: If the Niners make it.

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For years, some people who wanted to store files on remote servers in the cloud have been emailing the files to their Gmail accounts, or uploading them to Google’s lightly used Google Docs online productivity suite, even if they had no intention of editing them there.

Now, Google is formally jumping into the cloud-based file storage and syncing business, offering a service called Google Drive, which will compete with products like Dropbox and others by offering lower prices and different features. It works on multiple operating systems, browsers and mobile devices, including those of Google’s competitors Apple and Microsoft. There are apps for Windows, Mac and mobile devices that automatically sync files with Google Drive.

[ See post to watch video ]

I’ve been testing Google Drive, which launches today, and I like it. It subsumes the editing and file-creation features of Google Docs, and replaces Google Docs (though any documents you have stored there carry over). In my tests — on a Mac, a Lenovo PC, a new iPad and the latest Samsung Android tablet — Google Drive worked quickly and well, and most of its features operated as promised. At launch, it’s available for Windows PCs, Macs and Android devices. The version for the iPhone and iPad is planned for release soon.

Google Drive, which can be found at drive.google.com, offers users 5 gigabytes of free storage, compared with 2 gigabytes free for the popular Dropbox, and equal to the free offering from another cloud storage and syncing service I like, SugarSync. That’s enough for thousands of typical documents, photos and songs.

Prices for additional storage drastically undercut Dropbox and SugarSync. For instance, 100 GB on Google Drive costs $4.99 a month. By contrast, 100 GB costs $14.99 monthly on SugarSync and $19.99 on Dropbox. Google Drive will offer huge capacities, in tiers, all the way up to 16 terabytes. (A terabyte is roughly 1,000 gigabytes.) And if you buy extra storage for Google Drive, your Gmail quota rises to 25 GB.

But one of Google’s biggest rivals isn’t standing still. Microsoft is expanding both the features and capacity of its little-known SkyDrive cloud storage service as well. That product started out as a free, fixed-capacity (25 gigabytes) online locker mostly for users of the stripped-down, cloud-based version of Microsoft Office, though it also has been available as an app for Windows Phone smartphones and for iPhones. It’s giving away even more free storage than Google — 7 GB, though that is a cut from what it used to offer free. It also is charging less than Google. For instance, you can add 100 gigabytes for $50 a year. And users of the old version get to keep their 25-gigabyte free allotment. I wasn’t able to test this new version of SkyDrive for this column. It also is offering syncing apps for Windows and Mac.

Google Drive is meant as an evolution of Google Docs. While you could previously upload a file to Google Docs using your Web browser, for Google Drive, the company is providing free apps for Mac and Windows that, like Dropbox, do this for you. They create special folders that sync with your cloud-based repository and with the Web version of the product. So, you can drag a file into these local folders on your computer and that file will be uploaded to your cloud account and will rapidly appear in the Web version of Google Drive, in the Google Drive folders on your other computers, and in the Google Drive apps on Android, iPhone and iPad devices. These local apps also sync any changes to the files you make.

One big difference between Dropbox and Google Drive is you can edit or create files in the latter, rather than merely storing or viewing them. This is because Google Drive includes the rudimentary word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and other apps that make up Google Docs.

But there is a catch. If your stored document is in a Microsoft Office format, you can only view it. To edit it, you have to click a command to convert the file to Google’s own formats, or choose a setting that converts Microsoft Office files when uploaded. But this latter feature only works when uploading from the website.

Google Drive also is missing some features of SugarSync I like. The latter doesn’t require you to place files in a special folder; it syncs the folders you already use on your PC and Mac. Also, unlike SugarSync, Google Drive doesn’t let you email files directly into your cloud locker.

Google Drive allows you to share files and folders, and collaborate with others. You can also email files as attachments. People with whom you share files can be allowed different rights: To view, comment, or edit them. You can also keep the files private.

Because Google has run into hot water over keeping users’ information private, some people may be reluctant to trust their files to Google Drive. But the company insists that, while it does process and store your files, no human can see them and, at least today, the files aren’t used to target advertising at users. The company notes no file can be placed in Google Drive unless the user wants it there.

The service does a very good job of searching files, even finding words inside PDF or scanned documents. The company claims it can find images when you type in words describing them, like “bridge” or “mountain”—even if those words don’t appear in the image’s file name. But I found this mostly worked with photos of famous places or people Google has collected via its Google Goggles product. Google Drive failed to find images with generic file names on almost all of my own pictures, even when they included things like mountains or other common objects.

Google Drive did a good job in my tests with videos. It converts nearly every common video format into a format it can play, right inside its website. This process can take some time. While Google Drive can store music, it can’t play it directly via its website.

Google’s new service also works with third-party document creation and editing apps that are built to work with it. I used one, called Balsamiq Mockups, to create a quick wire-frame diagram.

I can recommend Google Drive to consumers looking for cloud-based storage, with the added bonus of integrated editing, at lower prices. But the new Microsoft SkyDrive also seems worth a try.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.

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