Recently, I had a negative experience with one of my favorite cloud services – Dropbox. Dropbox is one of the most mature of the cloud storage services, and the apps are on every platform I can think of. It is also pre-integrated with many if not most of the productivity tools available. I simply loved it as I can access my files from multiple computer and devices, and I introduced it to many of my friends and family.

Guess how Dropbox ruined it for me? They decided that since many people have multiple accounts with Dropbox, it would be nice that they can install multiple Dropbox accounts on a single machine, presumably one account for Business and one for Home. This is logical, sensible, and a great differentiator with the other cloud servicing tools. The trouble is, the character for the folder name went from “Dropbox” or 7 characters to “Dropbox – XXX”, where XXX is the account name. The extra characters REALLY mattered, and as far as my interaction with Dropbox can tell, they did not think of the problem of extra characters.

Given all the tech wizards out there, did anyone realize that many of the older Windows apps suffer from a legacy problem of recognizing only 255 characters? So by this little change, my favorite app just killed my backup software (and a number of other services) for a good portion of my file as now their filename plus the path name now exceeded 255 characters. I was sufficiently upset at Dropbox, after some heated exchanges with their Support, and I took the tremendous trouble and migrated off Dropbox.

So why am I blogging this here (besides complaining)? The lesson here is that even with the best of intentions, and I am sure there are many smart people at Dropbox, they either did not see the impact of this error or they did not care. Dropbox Support mentioned that will be working on an enhancement to fix this. But it’s too late for me and likely millions of people who are using Dropbox and FORCED to accept the change. It is also too late for millions and billions of legacy apps out there that have character limitations. So even if they ever roll out a fix (and I have not seen it), it’s a tad bit late.

But this itty-bitty change taught me a big lesson – the need to think long and hard about change and its implications, especially when the change affects millions of users. It is like a butterfly effect, which a small change in the initial condition produce large non-linear response later on. As a project manager, we deal with tough situations every day. If something this apparent “enhancement” of a well-established software can irate a loyal customer like me into changing, what are the unintended consequence of much bigger decisions and on much more complex situations?

What are your thoughts? Do you have stories to share that resonate with the law of unintended consequence or perhaps even the butterfly effect?