Recently, there’s been a subtle shift in the way I’ve been receiving attachments from people at work that has eroded a fundamental annoyance I’ve always had with email attachments. That is, the proliferation of stale, disparate and potentially-widely distributed copies of files spiraling out of my control.
This all started with our transition to Google Apps for email. That change brought with it access to this new thing called Google Drive.
Now, rather than attaching files to emails, people are attaching living links to documents. There are a number of benefits to doing this:
- Links that are living always point to the latest version of a document (assuming that’s their intention, links to specific revisions are possible too).
- Links in our control can be destroyed in the future, preventing future recipients from (easily) having access to the attachments.
- Links can have Access Control Lists associated with them restricting who can access them, how many times, etc.
- Links are naturally smaller in size than an attachment, and reinforce the lightweight nature of SMTP.
- Links are mobile friendly. I don’t like getting a 20mb attachment on my iPhone. I’d rather have the link just load up into my Google Drive (or Box, or Dropbox, etc.) if I need to save it. The idea that I need to store it persistently on a local device is covered by other applications better than SMTP / email.
It seems subtle, but this is a powerful shift. It doesn’t mean someone can’t download my attachment and share it independently, though the nature of the link can help dissuade that behavior (by linking to an embedded flash PDF viewer, for example).
We’re not done yet:
- I’d love for my MTA (Google Apps in this case) to parse many of these types of links and automatically put them into my Google Drive for access on my mobile devices.
- We’re just scratching the surface of what kind of ACLs and security can be put in place to better manage file sharing. Folks like Box are pioneering a lot here and I can’t wait to see how my world will be better managed.
Ultimately though, I’m glad to see the attachment as a pointer rather than the attachment as a blob. That always felt crude to me.