Google Drive and the Uncanny Valley

In 1970, a Japanese robotics professor called Masahiro Mori wrote a short essay entitled ‘The Uncanny Valley’. In this he described the relationship between the degree of ‘affinity’ humans have with a robot and the how realistic a robot is. To begin with, there is a a positive correlation between the two, with increasing human likeness resulting in increased affinity. However, as the human likeness approaches that of a healthy human, affinity drops to negative, with the robot actually becoming eerie and repulsive. Mori calls this the ‘uncanny valley’ – a chasm between the real and the simulated that is really hard to cross.

It has been pointed out that the user experience of websites, particularly if they are offering an online equivalent of a desktop application, can fall into the uncanny valley trap. Here, the web service tries to mimic how a traditional application might look and feel but the restraints of web technology means it just doesn’t quite work or behave as expected.

My proposition is that Google Drive, it all of its various incarnations, at times falls down the perilous ravine of the uncanny valley.

Now we use Google Drive at my school, which in so many ways is really excellent. For us it solved quite effectively the problem of ‘how can I get secure access to all my files on whatever device I’m using’. It’s particular strengths are as follows:

  • Shared drives. All files on these drives are owned by the drives rather than individuals, allowing for a genuine replacement for the SMB Windows share.
  • The iPad app. Users can directly browse, preview, organise and work with files on a shared drive. This is much better than our previous WebDAV hacks that we used to give iPads some semblance of access to a Windows shared drive.
  • Unlimited storage. Enough said!
  • Access anywhere. Because all the files live in the cloud rather than on the school premises, teachers don’t need any weird VPN or remote access hacks to get at their stuff.
  • File Stream on the Mac. This is quite a clever bit of technology that means each user doesn’t have to sync (ie. download) all of the files on Google Drive onto their desktop account, but instead files are downloaded discretely in the background when they are required (i.e. double-clicked on).
  • Online collaboration. Google Docs, Sheets and Slides provide online productivity software (ie. Word/Excel/Powerpoint respectively) that lets multiple people edit files in real time. Which is pretty neat, and has become increasingly important with our move to remote learning and working in the current COVID-19 crisis.
  • Clever integration with Slack. We use Slack in school for internal communication rather than email. With the paid version of Slack, there are lots of thoughtful integrations between G-Suite and Slack, such as the ability to log into Slack with your school Google account, sharing files from Google Drive as a web link (which Slack then checks that everyone who is in the channel has permission to view) and notifications within Slack for comments on documents and share requests.

So, lots of great stuff

But because Google would totally prefer us to do everything and anything inside their Chrome web browser, there ends up being some weird and uncanny quirks wherever Google Drive connects in with anything that isn’t Google-y.

Here are some things I would love to see Google address to make Google Drive even better.

Google Drive on iPad

So, my BIGGEST complaint with Google Drive on iPad is that they just don’t integrate with the whole Files app on iPadOS. They do provide support for files in ‘My Drive’ (with a very buggy implementation), but not for files on ‘Shared Drives’. This means that you can’t create a file in Pages directly onto a Shared Google Drive and edit it there, but instead you have to use ‘Open In’ and then save a copy to Pages (which then gets saved on iCloud Drive or wherever) and then share it back to Google Drive once you’re done.

Which is very frustrating and leads to whole set of workaround workflows that would be entirely unnecessary if Google just played the game and hooked up Google Drive to all of the file system hooks that Apple have kindly provided in iPadOS.

I suspect that Google are playing a strategy game here of not properly supporting iPad because they really want you/your school to use Chromebook instead. Hopefully as iPad grows in the enterprise, Google will realise they can’t cut off their nose to spite their face.

Google Drive File Stream

The great thing about Google Drive File Stream is that it lets you use Google Drive (including Shared Drives – I guess Google engineers use Macs even if they don’t use iPads!) as if it were a mounted SMB network share. But this is also it’s weakness, because it doesn’t quite behave like one.

Once you’ve got Google Drive File Stream installed and all signed in, a little menu bar status menu lets you know how it’s all going. Because if you open and edit or create a new file on the Google Drive in the Finder, it has to sync up the changes to Google Drive before you log out. And when you first log into Google Drive File Stream, it has to download the file hierarchy and files (just placeholders, not the actual files) before you can start using it.

The upshot of this is that you can end up in a situation where a user might save a file to Google Drive on one computer, log out and then be unable to find it again on a different computer. This might be because the file didn’t sync to the cloud before logout, or it hasn’t yet downloaded again on the next computer.

It’s not an insurmountable problem and usually just requires checking that everything’s synced up before logging out and being a bit more patient when logging in elsewhere. But the reality is that you need to have a decent conceptual model of how Google Drive File Stream actually works because it’s not the same as a network shared drive that it’s pretending to be.

Google Docs

I think the biggest ‘uncanny valley’ moment is with Google Docs/Sheets/Slides. Google have done a sterling job of figuring out how to actually make a half-decent word processor/spreadsheet/presentation software just in a web browser. But there is the problem – it’s still in a web browser and so doesn’t really behave like a real application.

Part of the issue is that people are used to the idea of an application that does something I want and a resulting file that I can do stuff with. Google Docs isn’t really an application, but rather a web service. And it doesn’t really have files, but rather a link to a page that will display the database information in a document-like manner.

Which result in questions like:

  • How do I actually create a Google Docs? If you’re using Word, you open Word and off you go. But with Google Docs you have to open a website or the Google Drive website and then start from there. There is the iPad app, which makes a little more sense, but it’s a profoundly crippled and un-iPadOS-like piece of software.
  • But isn’t this already a Google Doc? In a bid to be super helpful, Google Drive will let you open up Word .docx files within Google Docs. Which can do some sort of collaboration if you’re on the website, but not if you’re using the iPad app. This can result in data loss as multiple people work on the same document, presuming it’s already a Google Doc.
  • So how do I turn this document into a Google Doc? On the website on a Mac, you have to dig around in the file menu to convert it (but not in the File menu of Safari or Chrome, but rather the menus within the web browsers…confusing!) once it’s already opened in Google Docs. On the iPad there is a very friendly button to convert the file, but then it saves it to ‘My Drive’ by default rather than onto the Shared Drive where you had opened the file. So you then need to open the Google Drive app and move that ‘file’ to where you want it.
  • How do I share/upload this Google Doc? As it’s not really a file, it has to be exported in another format before you can upload it to a website or emailed as an attachment.

We are having to lean into Google Drive a lot more now we are all working remotely, which adds in the challenge of offering professional learning on the fly to a dispersed staff team; I wonder if some of these wrinkles will iron themselves out as people get more familiar with the conceptual model of what web-first productivity and file systems looks like.

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