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Helping businesses collaborate in real-time

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When a business professional want to send coworkers the master files of a project they've been working on without revealing it to the world, where doe...

When a business professional want to send coworkers the master files of a project they've been working on without revealing it to the world, where does that person turn?

If you're drop.io founder and CEO Sam Lessin, the hope is that people will turn toward his company's eponymous service, which allows two-click sharing of anything with anyone, privately.

I spoke with Lessin about drop.io (pronounced: drop-eee-oh) to find out how his New York-based tech startup helps businesses collaborate in real-time.

SmartPlanet: First things first: you named your company after your flagship service. What is drop.io?

Sam Lessin: drop.io is simple private sharing and real-time collaboration. A unit of exchange -- a "drop," a private URL -- every drop has its own phone number, its own location, et cetera. It's a place to collect media. The cool part about it is the technology behind it: one aspect of it is file conversion, the other is real-time messaging.

At drop.io, we have a drop we use every day to chat and work. It's having a real-time conversation with rich media.

There are two big things that get us really excited. One is public sharing of information, such as social media. But there's been very little improvement over private sharing. Two years ago we asked, "Why is that?" The only business-model pursued lately was advertising-based. But it's very hard to build companies that facilitate private information-sharing. Most of life gets done with some level of privacy. We made the decision that people are willing to pay for good web services. We saw a business opportunity there.

The second thing that gets us excited is the cloud. You can't underestimate the implications of "cloud" or commodity computing. The opening up of Amazon web services and the fact that you can build and scale technology very cheaply means the cost structure has changed dramatically.

What's driving what we're doing is simple, private ways to move data. XMPP is our backbone.

SP: Tell me about your new real-time presentation service, present.io.

SL: It makes giving web-based presentations dead simple. You can take any media -- video, audio, documents, notes, links, executables, pictures -- you can play that in line.

We've built three pieces of drop.io so far -- file-sharing, real-time collaboration, and present.io, which is drop.io in a directed way, where one person pushes content to everyone else, rather than everyone pushing content to everyone else. From a technical perspective, it's the same technology.

As the technology landscape changes, we're building the structure of "io," which is real-time information management.

SP: You don't need to sign up for drop.io -- it's just drop and go. Has the lack of restrictions been an invisible hurdle for curious potential users?

SL: Our challenge isn't the technology, it's how to get people to engage with it. People are having difficulty for legacy reasons, they think they have to register. So sometimes people get confused, and they'll make a drop of their name, and try to look for something to make sub-folders, rather than just making a new drop and not having an account to manage. People come to a page and don't think it's possible to create a presentation without signing up for or installing something. There's a lot untraining to do.

Right now there's a lot of e-mail [feedback]. There are interface things we continue to refine -- adding helper text, or wizard-esque type thing -- but it's going to be a long process for us. When you try to be a different model than what people are used to, even if it makes evolutionary sense, there's a learning curve to face there.

SP: How about the enterprise and corporate applications? How does drop.io fit in?

SL: That's where we see growth opportunity, working with companies. People are using it for business and personal reasons, but as individuals. We think using it in a peer-to-peer way is the way to go. Hopefully, if we're doing our jobs, it grows organically. We're definitely focused on helping educate and get into that market.

We're building on something called "drop.io manager" for second- and third-level services that medium businesses want and small-businesses need. It's been wonderful, and we keep trying to get off-mark a little bit.

We talk to some really huge companies and they have this [collaboration] difficulty so much. They're looking for alternatives, and we're trying to show them a less difficult and flexible way to interact.

SP: Your company and the technology it uses is situated in the cloud. Is cloud computing overhyped?

SL: We're very proud of the fact that our entire company is in the cloud. The cloud is the most fundamentally huge deal in the next 10 years, at least. We have no servers, no hardware. We pay for everything by the hour.

My service can grow and contract as it's needed, which is important. But the value of the cloud is that it changes the way you develop things and what you develop.

With present.io, you're sending out thousands of messages to servers across the Internet. If we were trying to build this without a cloud infrastructure as a company, we'd have to have a [ton of hardware] ....instead with the cloud we can build it and adjust it and develop much more quickly on the fly.

From a business perspective, it changes everything, especially as a small company. That's staggeringly important. We're kind of counting on an always-on, accessible world.

SP: What about open source?

SL: Open source is just as important. Someone whipped up drop.boxee, using our API, and that means you can watch all of your media in Boxee -- you can call your TV, basically. You can build incredibly powerful things very quickly.

The way we look at the world, there are three pieces to sharing infomation: who's speaking, so identity, what's being said, so the content, and distribution, or where it's going. Facebook started as an identity solution, then it built a content solution, and then they built distribution in the form of feeds. Those three reinforce each other and create a full conversation.

On the other hand, Twitter is just a distribution model. It's just a pointer. There's no real identity to it. That's kind of the world we're moving to -- a company is just a piece of a stack, a conversation. If Twitter is being distribution, we want to be content. We don't want to know who you are. And we don't want to do distribution, where the content goes at the end of the day.

SP: How's the economic downturn affecting drop.io?

SL: I don't know. We think the economic downturn has actually been positive. With people looking to cut budgets, the IT overhead and the sheer cost of it, you're looking to limit or lower costs. Drop.io is significantly cheaper than running your own SMTP servers. But I don't really know.

SP: What's next for drop.io?

SL: Faster, efficient, more easier to use. Anyone who needs to share rich media or collaborate or present can pick up drop.io and make it work for them without a lot of elegant. We're pretty happy with the services we offer, and we update them almost every day. We're in a massive refinement phase. We're looking to make the solution really elegant and sing.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure