Tubes, a new app going public Tuesday, is a peer-to-peer file-sharing and -synchronization system that can make it very easy to distribute files among multiple users and computers.
It's the application I've been looking for to solve this real-world problem: Every other year, my wife's family gets together for Christmas. This past December, her four siblings and their families gathered in her parents' house in Baltimore (the family doesn't believe in hotels, so it was cozy). There were eight digital cameras in operation. After the holidays, we all scattered back home, and the great photo archive of our time in Baltimore fragmented.
With the Tubes app installed on all our computers, we could simply all drag our photos into our shared Baltimore Christmas folder, and we'd all have access to all of them.
I tried it, and it works as advertised. Once set up, you can create as many "tubes" as you want and share them among your own PCs or with friends, family, and so on. Any files you drop into given tubes are replicated to the other machines. People you invite can be given read/write access or just be set up as readers. Those who have write access can add and change files, and those changes will be synced back to all subscribers.
The Tubes synchronization engine works in the background when a PC is online. When a PC is offline, its users still have access to all the files in its tubes and can continue to work with files in them and make changes. When they go back online, the files are synced again. If there are conflicts, Tubes copies all versions of a file.
In addition to my test case of sharing group photos, Tubes could also be very useful for geographically distributed workgroups and as a repository for files created by consultants for their customers.
It's cool because it works. It's easy to use. It appears quite robust. The replication engine means that when subscribers want to open a file, they don't have to download it--it's presumably already copied on to their machine. And Tubes even makes a cute pneumatic tube sound when you drop a file in it.
But there are snags. For one, it's Windows only, which is a real bummer if anyone you know is on a Mac or Linux box (this makes Tubes a nonstarter in my test case, since two people in my wife's family are Mac heads). And while the app itself is smallish, it requires the latest .Net framework, which is so much of a beast to install that I could not in good conscience point my less PC-savvy friends to the application.
Also, Tubes makes copies of all the files you drop in it, so if you're going to put a bunch of photos in a tube, you'll need to remember that the versions in your My Pictures folders are not the ones in the tube. This is a good security measure and good for communal work spaces, but it might be confusing for some users. (To share folders directly, you can use FolderShare or BeInSync.)
Finally, there's no chat associated with a tube, which seems to be a missing feature. It'd be nice if people could leave notes in a tube when they made file additions or changes.
Once there's a Mac version, Tubes could become a powerful collaboration and sharing platform. There are also other shared and online storage products worth looking at if Tubes sounds interesting to you: see BoxCloud, Box.net, Omnidrive, Pando, and Sharpcast.